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Skura trying to build on Week 1 with rest of Ravens offensive line

Posted on 17 September 2020 by Luke Jones

Ravens center Matt Skura was excited to be back in action for the first time since sustaining a serious knee injury less than 10 months ago, but he and the offensive line expected more from themselves in the aftermath of a 38-6 win over Cleveland.

The final score surprisingly wasn’t indicative of an uneven performance up front as Baltimore ran for a rather ordinary 111 yards on 30 carries, its lowest single-game total since the 2018 playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. And though Lamar Jackson had an all-world, MVP-caliber day with three touchdown passes, an 80-percent completion percentage, and a 152.1 passer rating, Cleveland pressured him on 30 percentage of his dropbacks, according to Pro Football Reference.

Maintaining he’s “really close” to being 100 percent and that his surgically-repaired left knee “feels great,” Skura and the rest of the offensive line know they need to be better moving forward. It also reflects high expectations after last season when the Ravens ran for an NFL single-season record 3,296 yards and averaged a league-leading and franchise-record 33.2 points per game.

“Even though we didn’t have our best game as an offensive line and just me personally, it’s definitely good to just know that there’s so many more things that we can improve on,” Skura said. “And if we — including myself — clean up the little things, I think the game would’ve gone even further and we could’ve scored more points. That’s definitely encouraging.

“Just knowing that we can improve on those little technique things here and there, it was a good start. We didn’t have any preseason games to get those kinds of things out of the way.”

The Ravens next travel to Houston to take on a defense that gave up 166 rushing yards and nearly 5.0 yards per carry against a Kansas City rushing attack led by rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire in Week 1. The Texans are trying to fill the void left by the free-agent departure of standout defensive tackle D.J. Reader, making the interior an area the Ravens could try to exploit.

That’s also where the Ravens offensive line struggled the most in the opener with Skura and rookie right guard Tyre Phillips both having some difficulties.

“We have high standards, obviously,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “I thought [the running game] was very effective in getting done what we wanted to get done in certain areas, and then there are things we have to clean up. The next day, everybody was getting back to work on cleaning those things up, and it’s just something that we are going to try to get better and better at every week.”

Roman’s nightmare

Three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt has missed the last two meetings between the Ravens and Texans due to injury, but Roman described him as falling into the “nightmare category.”

In fact, the Baltimore coordinator even compares the 6-foot-5, 288-pound defensive end to Jackson with the way he manages to avoid high-impact contact.

“He just knows how to defeat blocks and he does it in a very unique way,” Roman said. “Some people that would try to do that would absolutely end disastrously, but he’s got the balance, the quickness to be able to set up the offensive lineman or the blocker and then show them one thing and give them something else, but still be productive on the play. He has really good instinct on when to take those chances and understands angles in real time.

“It’s hard to get a really, really crushing block on him because he’s a very slippery but powerful player — very unique combination.”

Of course, with the 31-year-old Watt having missed 32 games from 2016-19, it’s fair to wonder if that sterling reputation is more reality or nostalgia at this point.

Proche A-OK

Rookie wide receiver James Proche drew criticism for allowing the first punt sent his way to bounce at the 18 and roll all the way to his own 1 in the second quarter of the Browns win, but special teams coordinator Chris Horton had a different outlook.

“From the outside, we look at it as an error. From the inside, we look at it as we gave our offense the ball back,” Horton said. “Our offense got possession of the football. James understands also that we like to catch every ball we possibly can. But looking at that punt, him being the punt returner, it’s his first opportunity to catch one, [and] he didn’t like the way it was coming down. I thought he made a great decision.”

Speaking positively about a rookie is wise, but Horton may have been singing a different tune had the Ravens been stuffed for a safety or committed a turnover so deep in their own territory on the ensuing drive.

Proche returned two other punts for 26 yards in his first career game.

Thursday’s injury report

After missing Wednesday’s practice with respective hip ailments, left tackle Ronnie Stanley and cornerback Jimmy Smith were limited participants.

Wide receiver Chris Moore (finger) and defensive tackle Justin Madubuike (knee) remained absent and appear very likely to miss their second straight game. Running back Justice Hill (thigh) practiced on a limited basis for the second straight day after missing the season opener.

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: DT Justin Madubuike (knee), WR Chris Moore (finger), DT Brandon Williams (non-injury),
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: RB Justice Hill (thigh), CB Jimmy Smith (hip), OT Ronnie Stanley (hip)

HOUSTON
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: WR Brandin Cooks (quad), OT Tytus Howard (ankle), RB Duke Johnson (ankle), ILB Peter Kalambayi (hamstring), DE J.J. Watt (hip)
FULL PARTICIPATION: FB Cullen Gillaspia (hamstring), OLB Jonathan Greenard (ankle)

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 1 win over Cleveland

Posted on 15 September 2020 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens winning their fifth straight season opener in a 38-6 blowout final over Cleveland, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Calais Campbell made his presence felt on the opening drive, batting down a pass and then dropping into coverage to deflect another throw into the arms of Marlon Humphrey. The 6-foot-8 Campbell pounded his fist on the ground over not catching it, but he was terrific in his Baltimore debut.

2. Campbell and fellow newcomer Derek Wolfe will be effective chess pieces for Wink Martindale, but Week 1 indicated the Ravens will again need to rely on blitzing and numbers for a pass rush. You’d love to get home with a four-man rush, but a strong secondary makes up for it.

3. According to Next Gen Stats, Lamar Jackson was 11-for-13 on passes traveling at least 10 yards downfield and his 47-yard throw to Marquise Brown outside the numbers was gorgeous, but reaction to his performance surprised me a bit. He didn’t lead the NFL in touchdown passes by accident last year.

4. Jackson’s downfield pitch to Mark Ingram reminded of Willie Mays Hayes making the basket catch and being greeted in the dugout by manager Lou Brown in “Major League.” “Nice catch, Hayes. Don’t ever [expletive] do it again.” It was also clearly illegally forward, but Ed Reed had to be smiling.

5. Two touchdowns overshadowed J.K. Dobbins gaining a modest 22 yards on seven carries, but the rookie starting the second half over Mark Ingram felt notable and reflects there not being much of a gap in the hierarchy so early in the season. It isn’t great news for Gus Edwards either.

6. Jaylon Ferguson registered a tackle and a quarterback hit and had a fourth-quarter sack wiped away by a penalty, but he played the fewest snaps (22) of the five outside linebackers. This came on the heels of a quiet summer for the second-year outside linebacker. Baltimore needs a step forward.

7. All focus has been on the young receivers, but Willie Snead’s 64 receiving yards marked his highest single-game total since 2016. After dropping some weight and having a good training camp, Snead doesn’t appear ready to surrender playing time just yet.

8. The element of surprise can always be used as a defense, but Greg Roman choosing a third-and-1 from the Cleveland 7 to give Patrick Ricard his first career carry felt a little too cute. You wonder how long Ricard will wait for his next carry after the fumble.

9. John Harbaugh is correct that few NFL coaches pull their quarterbacks particularly early when leading big, but acknowledging the Ravens did that with Jackson a couple times last year made his argument less convincing, especially as D.J. Fluker was filling in for an injured Ronnie Stanley.

10. Beyond James Proche not catching a punt that rolled to the 1, special teams were solid with L.J. Fort’s hit on Cleveland’s fake punt standing out. Still, the kickoff team settling for touchbacks all seven times after doing that only 53.8 percent of the time last year is worth monitoring.

11. Which best reflected Cleveland’s ineptitude: that ill-advised fake punt, the disinterest of Odell Beckham Jr., or third-and-41? The benefit of the doubt is appropriate for teams that went through significant changes this offseason, but “the Browns gonna Brown.” At least they fixed their uniforms, which do look sharp.

12. We laugh about Justin Tucker and Sam Koch not having as much work in this new era of Ravens offense, but there were 19 missed field goals and five missed extra points across the league. The continuity provided by the “Wolfpack” is more important than ever with the pandemic restrictions.

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Ravens’ ability to handle unknowns key to 2020 season

Posted on 10 September 2020 by Luke Jones

Even for a top Super Bowl contender like the Ravens, the unknowns are what make a new season both exciting and unsettling.

Who will start at right guard and try to adequately replace future Hall of Famer Marshal Yanda?

Does a revamped “30-something” defensive line live up to the hype and improve both the pass rush and run defense?

How will the unproven DeShon Elliott fill the on-field void of dismissed seven-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas?

Will defending NFL MVP Lamar Jackson and a record-setting offense remain a step or two ahead of defenses or will a few more opponents narrow the gap after an offseason to carefully study the “revolution” that took the league by storm?

Do the Ravens finally have a January breakthrough with little else to accomplish in terms of regular-season records and awards after last year’s embarrassment of riches?

These are all legitimate questions, but nothing out of the ordinary.

The unknowns extend far beyond the roster and the field in 2020, of course. Every NFL event this offseason ranging from free agency and the draft to the schedule release was accompanied by the real doubt of whether there would even be a season due to the coronavirus pandemic. Now that we know football will begin, the question becomes whether it will be continue without interruption. The league knows it has no time to exhale despite the encouraging testing results of the preseason.

With players now having more free time in regular-season mode and teams now traveling to other cities for games, what happens if there’s a virus outbreak akin to what the Miami Marlins or St. Louis Cardinals endured in Major League Baseball this summer?

Will there be more injuries than usual after an abbreviated training camp and the cancellation of preseason games?

How will teams and players be impacted mentally and emotionally by the absence — or at least the significant reduction — of fans in a sport strongly tied to the concept of home-field advantage?

Will a continuing push for social justice reform and racial equality put a halt to the schedule at some point as the other major professional sports experienced last month?

No one knows the answers to these questions now, but teams like the Ravens with strong leadership and continuity appear better equipped to navigate these challenges, making Sunday’s opener against Cleveland an interesting contrast. Baltimore has a 13th-year head coach, both coordinators returning, and a general manager who’s been with the organization since its inaugural 1996 season while the Browns are again starting over with a new coaching staff and general manager.

First-year head coach Kevin Stefanski may have the element of surprise on his side with a talented roster that didn’t live up to last year’s hype, but that leadership transition was accompanied by a restrictive offseason and abbreviated summer. Many anticipate tackling being an issue across the league in the early going, but the idea of slowing Jackson and a record-setting rushing attack from a year ago seems more problematic than containing Cleveland’s impressive running duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.

Yes, every team figures to have some early hiccups, whether it’s the aforementioned tackling, poor offensive line play that’s a hot topic even during normal times, or sloppiness on special teams. But the teams with an established process and strong culture figure to have a better-than-normal chance to succeed in what could be the most volatile season in NFL history. Organizations still finding their footing in those areas may not reach stable ground before its too late for 2020.

Early tackling test

The additions of defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe and the first-round selection of inside linebacker Patrick Queen were made in large part to improve a run defense ranking just 21st in yards per carry allowed and efficiency.

The Browns were the first opponent to expose that weakness last year in their convincing Week 4 win, so they provide a good test for a revamped front. Chubb ran for a season-high 165 yards in that contest, but Baltimore held him to 45 yards in Week 16. Many hoped that was a sign of the Ravens fixing their issues against the run before Derrick Henry and Tennessee ran all over them in January.

The fundamentals of tackling have been a point of emphasis in summer practices despite few “live” opportunities without preseason games. How that translates to the first game will be a major question around the league.

“You have to have your angles, you have to bring your feet, you have to bring your hands, your feet,” defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said. “And the biggest thing is that you gang tackle if that first guy does miss. Watching college games [last weekend], you saw some missed tackling in that Navy-BYU game, for example, that jumps out. I think it’s going to be a big focal point for both sides.”

Returner mystery remains

Special teams coordinator Chris Horton wouldn’t reveal who would handle punt and kick return duties in the opener, allowing the mystery to linger for a few more days.

“I think we’ve waited a long time. I think we can wait three more days to figure out who’s going to be out there,” Horton said. “Again, whoever we put out there is going to be the guy for the job.”

Of Baltimore’s punt returner candidates, rookie sixth-round wide receiver James Proche looked the most comfortable during practices open to reporters, but veteran slot receiver Willie Snead is listed ahead of him on the unofficial depth chart put out by the public relations staff. Identifying the kick returner is more challenging with running back Justice Hill and wide receiver Chris Moore currently sidelined with injuries, but rookie third-round wide receiver Devin Duvernay is listed behind them on the depth chart and could receive the first opportunity.

Odds & ends

The Ravens have “full confidence” in Elliott making his first career start at safety after last month’s untimely dismissal of Thomas. “He loves the game of football,” Martindale said. “I told [pass defense coordinator] Chris Hewitt, “You might want to have a brown paper bag over there for him too because he’s going to get so excited, he might be hyperventilating.’ Just teasing with him, but he’s going to be ready to go.” … Pro Bowl fullback Patrick Ricard is expected to have an expanded role on offense, especially with the Ravens carrying just two tight ends on the active roster for now. “He has practiced a lot more in the tight end role, so I think he can do more,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “Every year, he’s been able to do more and more, so we’re really glad we have him.” … Thursday’s NFL-opening game between Houston and defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City provides the Ravens an early look at their next two opponents. Baltimore will play its first road game against the Texans in Week 2 and will host the Chiefs for Monday Night Football on Sept. 28. “All eyes are on Cleveland,” said Martindale from a preparation perspective. “I think that I’d be lying to you if I’m not going to go home tonight and watch that game because I’m just like you guys — we’re just excited to see football.”

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Predicting the initial 53-man roster for the 2020 Ravens

Posted on 03 September 2020 by Luke Jones

Only two weeks of open training camp practices and the absence of preseason games make the exercise of predicting the Ravens’ initial 53-man roster more challenging than ever despite so much continuity from last season.

With no shortage of unknowns that coaches and team officials aren’t exactly eager to discuss and the COVID-19 pandemic looming over the 2020 season, Saturday’s 4 p.m. cut-down deadline could bring a surprise move or two as well as an altered roster-building strategy with virus testing results threatening to disrupt the season at any point. The practice squad has expanded to 16 players with six spots open to veterans of all experience levels, meaning teams could be more strategic than ever trying to keep familiar players in the fold. On the flip side, organizations may be more reluctant to claim unproven players off waivers without as much as a single 2020 preseason snap to evaluate.

“Being on the practice squad this year, in my mind, is like making the team,” head coach John Harbaugh said earlier this week. “I think most teams are going to really want to hold on to their guys for their practice squad because they know the system. They’re kind of schooled up now on the offense and defense. You have to assume that there’s a possibility that those guys will be playing any given week.”

It’s also worth noting that teams may protect four players from their practice squad for a portion of every game week and are permitted to promote up to two players from the practice squad the day before a game to essentially create a temporary 55-man roster. Beginning this year, teams may have up to 48 players active for games — the previous limit was 46 — as long as at least eight are offensive linemen.

These dynamics could lead to Eric DeCosta and other general managers retaining more draft picks and veteran role players with higher profiles around the league and cutting more undrafted rookies — including even the ones they like most — in hopes of passing them through waivers and re-signing them to the practice squad. Such a strategy would be notable with the Ravens having kept at least one rookie free agent on their Week 1 roster for 16 consecutive years.

Below is my final projection of the initial 53-man roster ahead of the 2020 regular season:

QUARTERBACKS (3)
IN: Lamar Jackson, Robert Griffin III, Tyler Huntley
OUT: Trace McSorley
Skinny: Going solely off the eyeball test from practices open to reporters, Huntley has outplayed McSorley and deserves the No. 3 job. However, the Ravens didn’t want to expose McSorley as a sixth-round rookie to waivers last summer and presumably want to keep both in the organization. Is another quarterback-light team more likely to claim McSorley — who flashed in preseason games last year — or an undrafted free agent without a single snap of preseason tape?  There’s also the question of their respective understandings of Greg Roman’s offense with McSorley having the extra year under his belt. Earlier this week, Harbaugh noted the four quarterbacks are “all in different places right now in their development.” With that in mind, my prediction could change here by Saturday afternoon.

RUNNING BACKS (4)
IN: Mark Ingram, J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards, Justice Hill
OUT: Kenjon Barner, Ty’Son Williams
Skinny: Missing a portion of summer workouts with an undisclosed injury, Hill is currently a distant fourth in the pecking order, which is a precarious place to be in the event of injuries and roster needs at other positions. However, the 2019 fourth-round pick could be in the kick return mix and is valuable depth for a team that runs the ball more than anyone. In the same way Dobbins was drafted in the second round with an eye toward the future, Hill may have a more prominent role in 2021 and beyond, but he’ll need to be a special-teams contributor to be active on game days. Signed only last week, Williams flashed in last weekend’s scrimmage and could land on the practice squad.

WIDE RECEIVERS (6)
IN: Marquise Brown, Miles Boykin, Willie Snead, Devin Duvernay, James Proche, Chris Moore
OUT: Jaleel Scott, Jaylon Moore
Skinny: Even after missing all of open training camp with a broken finger, Chris Moore is one of Baltimore’s best special-teams players and still figures to have a roster spot for the regular season. Scott, a 2018 fourth-round pick, just hasn’t shown enough growth in his third summer to make the 53-man roster, but Jaylon Moore, a rookie free agent from Tennessee-Martin, could be a solid developmental addition to the practice squad after making some tough catches in practices.

TIGHT ENDS & FULLBACKS (3)
IN: Mark Andrews, Nick Boyle, Patrick Ricard
OUT: Jerell Adams, Eli Wolf, Charles Scarff
Skinny: Ricard is a Pro Bowl fullback and not a permanent answer behind Andrews and Boyle, but the No. 3 tight end competition never really materialized this summer. Adams has the most experience of the three projected to be on the outside looking in and could be re-signed at any point, but there’s little incentive keeping an underwhelming third option if you can retain another player at a different position for the time being while exploring outside alternatives. Wolf showed some skill in the little bit of time he was on the practice field, but availability has been an issue for the undrafted rookie, making the practice squad a logical place for him.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)
IN: Ronnie Stanley, Orlando Brown Jr., Bradley Bozeman, Matt Skura, Patrick Mekari, D.J. Fluker, Tyre Phillips, Ben Bredeson, Ben Powers
OUT: Will Holden, Parker Ehinger, Trystan Colon-Castillo
Skinny: Skura’s health could determine whether the Ravens keep him on the roster or place him on injured reserve with a designation to return requiring only a three-game absence this year. Powers, a 2019 fourth-round pick from Oklahoma, has been a popular choice to be cut after an underwhelming summer, but the Ravens prefer not to give up on draft picks too quickly and he’s much more likely to be snatched up by another team than the three linemen left out here. Phillips, a third-round rookie from Mississippi State, has built late momentum to start at right guard, which could leave the veteran Fluker as a versatile inside-outside backup. Ideally, you’d like to have a swing tackle to back up both Stanley and Brown, but neither Holden nor Ehinger showed enough to devote a roster spot there as the Ravens will instead lean on the versatility of their interior linemen.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (6)
IN: Calais Campbell, Brandon Williams, Derek Wolfe, Justin Madubuike, Justin Ellis, Broderick Washington
OUT: Aaron Crawford
Skinny: The week-to-week knee injury to Madubuike — another conceivable IR return candidate — eliminates any perceived doubt about Ellis, who has had a good summer and is the primary backup to Williams at nose tackle. The additions of Campbell and Wolfe dramatically upgraded the starting defensive line, but there isn’t a ton of depth here with the rookie fifth-round pick Washington having a quiet camp. The good news is that the Ravens spend very little time in their traditional 3-4 base defense, so there isn’t the need for as many traditional defensive linemen active for games.

INSIDE LINEBACKERS (4)
IN: Patrick Queen, Malik Harrison, L.J. Fort, Chris Board
OUT: Otaro Alaka, Kristian Welch
Skinny: No one in this group improved his roster standing as much as Board, who went from the roster bubble to potentially being in the defensive mix in sub packages. Alaka still shows potential, but trying to keep five inside linebackers is difficult when acknowledging how much dime package defensive coordinator Wink Martindale likes to play. Both Alaka and Welch, an undrafted rookie from Iowa who’s had a solid camp, figure to be good candidates for the practice squad, giving the Ravens additional developmental depth at a position that’s undergone great change since last year.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS (5)
IN: Matthew Judon, Jaylon Ferguson, Pernell McPhee, Jihad Ward, Tyus Bowser
OUT: Aaron Adeoye, Chauncey Rivers, Marcus Willoughby
Skinny: Despite the never-ending discussion about the Baltimore pass rush, there’s little to say here from a roster standpoint with the top five seemingly set. McPhee and Ward both have the ability to move inside in certain sub packages, which should quell some of the short-term depth concerns on the defensive line. Keeping an edge rusher or two on the practice squad is a good bet with Judon, McPhee, Ward, and Bowser all scheduled to become free agents after this season.

CORNERBACKS (5)
IN: Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters, Tavon Young, Jimmy Smith, Anthony Averett
OUT: Terrell Bonds, Khalil Dorsey, Josh Nurse
Skinny: The three young corners may not have seriously challenged an improved Averett for the No. 5 spot, but their quality of play was impressive compared to past summers when the Ravens would struggle to identify a couple passable depth options out of a group of veteran retreads and camp bodies. Some combination of Bonds, Dorsey, and Nurse should be on the practice squad.

SAFETIES (5)
IN: Chuck Clark, DeShon Elliott, Anthony Levine, Jordan Richards, Nigel Warrior
OUT: Geno Stone
Skinny: The Earl Thomas saga allows the Ravens to keep Richards, a veteran special-teams player who won’t offer much on defense. The interesting decision could come down to retaining Stone or Warrior. Stone, a seventh-round rookie from Iowa, had a fairly quiet camp while Warrior, a rookie free agent from Tennessee, has turned some heads with his nose for the football. That said, both young safeties would probably pass through waivers and make it to the practice squad, so there’s no guarantee that either makes the roster, especially with Smith looking good cross-training as a safety this summer.

SPECIALISTS (3)
IN: Justin Tucker, Sam Koch, Morgan Cox
OUT: Johnny Townsend, Nick Moore
Skinny: As usual, there’s nothing to see here with the continuity provided by this trio being more valuable than ever in such an unusual 2020 campaign.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts counting down to final roster cuts

Posted on 31 August 2020 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens needing to trim their roster to 53 players by 4 p.m. on Saturday, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The preseason opener usually comes two weeks after the first full-squad practice, but we’re instead days away from final cuts and less than two weeks from Week 1 against Cleveland. Continuity gives the Ravens a major advantage over much of the league, but the timing remains so weird.

2. The practice squad is usually all about developmental talent, but the NFL extending the capacity to 16 players with six spots having no limit for accrued seasons means we could see more fringe veterans to account for potential COVID-19 outbreaks. I’m curious to see Eric DeCosta’s approach.

3. Greg Roman said coaches have begun pondering the impact of diminished crowd noise on in-game communication such as huddling or audibles at the line. My guess is it won’t be dramatic due to the plan for artificial ambient crowd noise, but it’s strange thinking about home-field advantage being neutralized.

4. Wink Martindale made clear he wants DeShon Elliott to play to his responsibilities and not try to do too much at safety. Something to watch will be his angles to the football, which has been a point of emphasis for a talented youngster with limited NFL playing experience.

5. We’ve talked much about Jimmy Smith, but his play feels like a big key in the secondary being special as opposed to merely really good. In addition to backing up Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, his ability to move around in sub packages could create headaches for opponents.

6. Without an established swing tackle, the offensive line may elect to shuffle multiple spots if there’s an injury to Ronnie Stanley or Orlando Brown Jr. The Ravens have made that strategy work before with guys like Michael Oher, Kelechi Osemele, and Marshal Yanda, but you’d rather not do that.

7. An early injury has led to a quiet camp for Jaylon Ferguson, but Martindale said it’s a matter of “getting him greased back up.” Like Smith, the 2019 third-round pick seems to be another determining factor in the defense’s ability to hit an elite level.

8. The number of times Lamar Jackson will run remains a popular question, so Roman offered this: “That’s just something that we can have available every week. Do a little bit more of it this week, a little less of it the next week.” It’s the straw that stirs the drink.

9. Chris Moore has missed all of open training camp with a broken finger, but special teams coordinator Chris Horton says he doesn’t “have any reservations about where Chris is when the time is right and he’s ready to play.” That’s a strong endorsement even if Moore isn’t a roster lock.

10. Justice Hill returned to practice Monday and remains a candidate to return kicks, but he feels like a distant fourth behind Mark Ingram, J.K. Dobbins, and Gus Edwards. Even in this offense, being the No. 4 running back is a tenuous spot if injuries mount elsewhere early in the season.

11. I’m sure continuing a streak of 16 straight years with at least one rookie free agent making the 53-man roster is important to the organization, but keeping as much game-ready depth as possible should be prioritized with the pandemic. Quarterback Tyler Huntley may be the strongest bet right now.

12. After making three trades in August last year, DeCosta has yet to pull off a swap this summer. Seeing one between now and Sept. 13 wouldn’t surprise me, especially if the Ravens can add offensive tackle depth, another tight end, or an edge rusher at a reasonable cost.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Day 9 of open training camp

Posted on 27 August 2020 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens returning to the practice field Thursday amidst the protests over the police shooting of Jacob Blake, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Players and coaches hit the field shortly before 9 a.m. with John Harbaugh addressing everyone before the usual team stretch to kick off practice. In order to devote time for social justice discussion and efforts, the Ravens canceled their afternoon football meetings.

2. It remained unclear Thursday afternoon whether any players chose not to practice, but absent veterans included Matthew Judon, Brandon Williams, Marcus Peters, Anthony Levine, and D.J. Fluker. Justice Hill, Chris Moore (finger), Jaleel Scott (midsection), Kenjon Barner (leg), and Josh Nurse were also missing.

3. A good indication of how well he’s practiced this summer, Lamar Jackson finally threw his first interception in an open workout off a deflection intended for Mark Andrews. I think the reigning MVP will be OK, however.

4. That deflection was one of several breakups made by Chuck Clark, who looked like the best player on the field. We don’t know how DeShon Elliott or anyone else will fare replacing Earl Thomas, but Clark is everything the Ravens wanted Tony Jefferson at a much cheaper cost.

5. We’ve touched on the lack of interceptions this summer, but J.K. Dobbins fumbled as Jaylon Ferguson made the recovery during a 9-on-9 drill. I couldn’t recall another fumble from a running back in a team drill during open practices, which is impressive given Baltimore’s style of play.

6. Malik Harrison came away with the Jackson interception and also recorded a pass breakup on a pass intended for Andrews in a 7-on-7 period. Harrison doesn’t appear to be in the running to start Week 1 at this point, but seeing him make plays in coverage was promising.

7. Tyre Phillips was regarded as a raw prospect for a third-round pick, but the 6-foot-5, 330-pound guard looks to be ahead of fellow rookie Ben Bredeson and 2019 fourth-rounder Ben Powers — both considered more polished in college — on the depth chart. A normal 2021 offseason could make him very interesting.

8. In the midst of another strong practice that included an impressive recovery — he’d briefly stumbled in coverage — and breakup of an end-zone fade pass to Miles Boykin, Anthony Averett left the field early with an apparent injury. You hope that isn’t serious with the third-year corner practicing so well.

9. Undrafted rookie wide receiver Jaylon Moore has been mentioned in this space before, but he pulled in two touchdown passes from Trace McSorley, one in a 7-on-7 drill and the other during a full-team period. He’s definitely looking like a developmental talent to keep around on the practice squad.

10. Thursday brought the return of rookie tight end Eli Wolf, who hadn’t practiced since the third day of open workouts due to an undisclosed injury. He flashed early in camp, but time is short for him to impress in a No. 3 tight end competition that’s been largely underwhelming.

11. The three coordinators were scheduled to talk for the first time in two weeks before the post-practice schedule was revised, but we’ll hear from Wink Martindale, Greg Roman, and Chris Horton next week. Martindale’s thoughts on the Earl Thomas-less safety picture should be interesting.

12. I don’t pretend to have the answers for these difficult times in which we live, but I look forward to listening to the message from Ravens players after their discussions on Thursday. There are a number of very thoughtful individuals in that locker room striving to spark positive change.

(Update: Read the statement and call to action issued by the Ravens on Thursday evening HERE.)

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Ravens center Skura passes physical, cleared for first padded practice

Posted on 16 August 2020 by Luke Jones

Ravens center Matt Skura vowed to be ready to return to the field during training camp and is now set to fulfill that promise.

The 27-year-old has passed his physical and is expected to take part in Baltimore’s first full padded practice on Monday morning. It’s quite a feat after Skura tore the ACL, PCL, and MCL and dislocated the kneecap in his left knee in Week 12 of the 2019 season.

Head coach John Harbaugh had said Skura was “right on schedule” and would be practicing soon despite the Ravens placing him on the active physically unable to perform list at the start of camp.

“That was our plan and work him in as we go. We want to make sure that he’s moving the right way,” Harbaugh said earlier this month. “Then, you want to put him against some pressure where the knee has to react to certain movements with pressure. We want to do all that before we put him on the field. This is a really slow ramp-up period anyway this year, so we have time to do it and we’re going to bring him along.”

Having started 39 games over the last three seasons including 12 at right guard in 2017, a healthy Skura paints a more stable picture for an interior offensive line trying to replace retired eight-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda. Skura is expected to face competition at center from 2019 undrafted free agent Patrick Mekari, who played well in his place down the stretch last year. Pro Football Focus graded Skura 17th among qualified centers last season while Mekari surprisingly finished 14th.

The competition at right guard will be even busier with veteran newcomer D.J. Fluker, 2019 fourth-round pick Ben Powers, and rookie draft choices Ben Bredeson and Tyre Phillips all in the mix to varying degrees. However, Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman have both acknowledged the possibility of shuffling linemen to different interior spots to find the best combination bookended by Pro Bowl offensive tackles Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr. That could include moving even starting left guard Bradley Bozeman to another inside spot.

“Every [practice] rep is going to carry an added value to it when you consider no preseason games,” Roman said last week. “I definitely think that’s going to really be our platform to evaluate what gives us the best chance to be the best group we can be. Everybody is going to have an opportunity, and we are always constantly trying to develop every player to their utmost.”

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Baltimore Ravens running back Mark Ingram (21) scores on a touchdown run as Houston Texans cornerback Gareon Conley (22) tries to stop him during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

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Examining Ravens position battles: Running back

Posted on 11 August 2020 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens ramping up their activity level before the start of full training camp practices later this month, we’ll take a look at some key position battles ahead of the 2020 season.

Below is a look at the competition at running back:

How many running backs are too many?

Offensive coordinator Greg Roman insists you can never have enough, especially after Baltimore added second-round pick J.K. Dobbins and his 6.2 yards per carry average as a three-year starter for Ohio State. With the Ravens already coming off an NFL-record 3,296-yard season in 2019, the competition for touches becomes even tougher this season.

It’s a terrific dilemma to have, but challenges may still arise.

“We’ll find ways to make it work, for sure. To have that kind of backfield is a blessing,” Roman said in June. “We definitely want to get into training camp and work through it and kind of evolve as we go. As far as how we are actually going to deploy them, who we are going to emphasis [and] how, I think that’s going to happen on the fly every day in training camp. We’ll get a better feel for that.

“But I love problems like that. I mean that sincerely.”

Mark Ingram is no stranger to being pushed as he was coming off new career highs with 1,043 yards and 5.1 yards per carry in 2016 — numbers very similar to what he accomplished for the Ravens last year — when New Orleans drafted Alvin Kamara in the third round of the 2017 draft. Kamara became an instant star as a rookie, but Ingram still ran for a career-best 1,124 yards to make his second career Pro Bowl that season.

Now 30, Ingram is coming off a Pro Bowl campaign and entering the second season of a three-year contract scheduled to pay him $5 million in 2021. It’s obvious general manager Eric DeCosta drafted Dobbins to be the feature back of the future, but how will that look in 2020 with team expectations so high?

The veteran back has offered nothing but praise for the 21-year-old who ran for over 2,000 yards with the Buckeyes last year, noting how Dobbins made the effort to reach out to him first after being drafted. The rookie describes Ingram to be “like an older brother” who’s replied to every text and answered every question he might have.

The Ravens ran a franchise-record 596 times last season — Oakland owns the league record with 681 in 1977 — but MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson remains the predominant force in the record-setting rushing attack, making it easier said on paper than in reality to want to diminish his 176-carry workload that averaged an NFL-best 6.9 yards per attempt. There’s also the topic of Jackson’s continued growth as a passer, making it tricky to assume Baltimore will even match last year’s rushing attempt total, let alone surpass it to more easily accommodate the gifted Dobbins.

Even if Dobbins serves in the primary backup role as many expect to begin the season, where does that leave Gus Edwards, who’s averaged 5.3 yards per carry in his young career and will be a restricted free agent after 2020? Edwards has emerged as one of the league’s best short-yardage backs, picking up first downs on 46 of his 133 rushing attempts last season.

Does 2019 fourth-round pick Justice Hill see more than the modest 66 offensive touches he received as a rookie or remain more of an afterthought and special-teams contributor?

The onus will be on Roman to try to get ball carriers into the flow of the game before identifying and embracing the hot hand. Every member of the crowded backfield has expressed a team-first mentality and figures to remain professional, but both Ingram and Edwards have business-related reasons to be concerned if their workloads diminish. If Dobbins proves to be the real deal, it’s difficult to see how at least one of those two incumbents wouldn’t be impacted substantially.

Again, it’s a great problem for the Ravens, who should have no issue remaining the most dynamic and productive rushing attack in the NFL.

“The coaches will decide how to rotate us and how to play us all,” Ingram said. “We all have special talents [and] special abilities, and all I do is work my butt off. I compete my butt off no matter where I’m at, no matter who is in my running back room. That’s just the bottom line.”

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Examining Ravens position battles: Right guard

Posted on 06 August 2020 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens ramping up their activity level before the start of full training camp practices later this month, we’ll take a look at some key position battles ahead of the 2020 season.

Below is a look at the competition for the right guard job:

Who will replace eight-time Pro Bowl selection Marshal Yanda? OK, there’s no “replacing” a future Hall of Famer, so who will assume the right guard position?

If Matt Skura doesn’t look like himself after last November’s knee injury, what happens at center?

How does the left guard spot look if Bradley Bozeman ends up sliding over to center?

Is veteran newcomer D.J. Fluker a favorite to start due to seven years of starting experience in the NFL, or will a younger option surprise coaches despite the absence of in-person workouts this spring?

So many questions have only been complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic wiping out the normal offseason program as well as preseason games. The only given here is that Yanda won’t be walking through the door after shedding more than 60 pounds since playing his final game in January.

Offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris will have his hands full with the evaluation process this summer.

“The opportunity is there, and somebody has to grab the brass ring, so to speak, and go for it,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said in June. “Not just one, but multiple guys because you can never have enough really in that interior offensive line where things happen so quick. Continuity does matter because guys are working together with all that quickness down on the inside.

“It’s going to be a competition, a process, a day-to-day process, and I like where we’re at. Once we get out there, we’ll kind of see where it goes.”

The post-draft addition of Fluker, 29, appeared to raise the floor of an unproven group of starting candidates, but the 2013 first-round pick from Alabama graded an underwhelming 51st among qualified guards in 2019 and ranked no better than 45th in each of the last four seasons, according to Pro Football Focus. His familiarity with D’Alessandris dating back to their days with the San Diego Chargers should ease the transition to his new team, but Fluker is only now having the opportunity to get acclimated in person.

Patrick Mekari was one of the surprises of the 2019 season filling in for the injured Skura down the stretch, but the former undrafted free agent from Cal-Berkeley could also receive looks at guard in addition to competing with the incumbent at the center position. Starting the final five regular-season games and last January’s playoff loss gives him an experience edge over other young linemen, but so many coaches and veterans over the years have noted how important that first post-rookie offseason is for a young offensive lineman’s development.

That same challenge applies to 2019 fourth-round pick Ben Powers, who played well in his only game action in the regular-season finale. The 6-foor-4, 310-pound guard may have the most upside of the young linemen, but his lack of playing time as a rookie still makes him a wildcard.

Rookies Tyre Phillips and Ben Bredeson were selected in the third and fourth rounds respectively in April’s draft, but counting on a mid-round rookie to start is a risky proposition even under normal circumstances. Head coach John Harbaugh suggested Phillips will also take reps at offensive tackle with Baltimore not having a clear backup for Pro Bowl selections Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr. after the release of James Hurst in March and Andre Smith’s recent decision to opt out of the 2020 campaign.

But the uncertainty extends beyond right guard with Skura beginning training camp on the active physically unable to perform list. His hard work and progress recovering from a multi-ligament tear has been encouraging, but how his surgically-repaired knee responds to football activity remains to be seen. Team officials are open to the possibility of moving Bozeman to center — the position he played at Alabama — but that would leave the Ravens with different starters at all three interior line spots from a year ago.

To be clear, this is an offense that made opponents look foolish on the way to setting an NFL single-season record with 3,296 rushing yards last year. The presence of generational rushing quarterback and 2019 league MVP Lamar Jackson, two Pro Bowl offensive tackles, and Roman’s innovative run-first system should alleviate concerns about right guard, but that doesn’t mean replacing Yanda will be an easy task, especially if Skura’s health prompts further shuffling inside.

There’s no shortage of candidates who may prove to be up to the task, but the Ravens identifying the best starting five is their most important objective of the summer.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts counting down to training camp

Posted on 13 July 2020 by Luke Jones

With the tentative start date for training camp only two weeks away, I’ve offered a dozen Ravens thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Matthew Judon and the Ravens have until 4 p.m. Wednesday to strike a long-term deal and avoid the outside linebacker playing for the $16.8 million franchise tag amount. Deadlines drive negotiations, but the economic uncertainty stemming from the pandemic dims optimism. They’re not alone.

2. The dearth of lucrative extensions around the NFL this offseason didn’t stop Kansas City from signing Patrick Mahomes to the largest contract in league history. Upon seeing the news of the $450 million deal, I couldn’t help but ponder Lamar Jackson’s celebration sometime in the next 12 to 18 months.

via GIPHY

3. It still hasn’t sunk in that we’ll see fewer than 14,000 fans per game at M&T Bank Stadium if spectators are even permitted to attend at all in 2020. The thrill of going to a game — and even the annoyances — won’t be taken for granted whenever normalcy returns.

4. Coaches will bristle at the reduced or canceled slate of preseason games, but I won’t shed any tears over the disappearance of shoddy exhibitions masquerading as premium entertainment. Good organizations will evaluate young players just fine. Incompetent ones probably weren’t getting it right anyway.

5. An above-average player from the moment he stepped on the field three years ago and developing into one of three Ravens cornerbacks ever to make a Pro Bowl, Marlon Humphrey just turned 24. With another top-shelf campaign at that age, why wouldn’t he expect to become the NFL’s highest-paid corner?

6. It’s easy — and fair — to point to Greg Roman’s run-first scheme creating so many open throws, but Jackson leading the NFL in expected points added on passes into tight windows throws cold water on any lingering doubts about the reigning MVP’s passing ceiling. Just enjoy the ride.

7. That doesn’t mean Jackson and the offense are destined to be better or as good as they were in 2019. Especially in the midst of a pandemic that’s disrupted much, the variance of a 16-game schedule could rear its head more than ever. Pro Football Focus explores that nicely HERE.

8. According to PFF, the Ravens enjoyed a lead for 644 offensive snaps last year, the league’s most by a margin of 57 over second-place New England. Regression toward the mean in this area wouldn’t be surprising, but that could provide Jackson the opportunity to show growth when playing from behind.

9. Kudos to the NFL for exploring a pragmatic answer to help make playing football more feasible this fall by working with Oakley to develop face shields for helmets. The question will be how many players find them comfortable enough to buy in.

10. Less credit to the rule prohibiting players from exchanging jerseys after games, which feels much more like security theater. If we’re testing players and deeming them safe enough to play for three hours, this shouldn’t be a concern. If it is, you can probably guess what I’d say next.

11. Recency bias hurt the fan-voted “All-Time 25 Team.” Jackson over Joe Flacco was wrong but forgivable, but Steve Smith over Derrick Mason, Torrey Smith, and Qadry Ismail was bad. This wasn’t about projecting the future or recognizing the best overall player who happened to once play here. Mason deserved better.

12. Speaking of the upcoming 25th season, I’ll offer a final mention of my series on the top 25 regular-season moments in franchise history. At a time with little taking place in sports, I enjoyed this stroll down memory lane. Let’s hope we have the opportunity to witness more this fall.

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