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Extending Stanley should be one of Ravens’ top offseason priorities

Posted on 10 February 2020 by Luke Jones

The Ravens tried to get the left tackle position right for a long time after Hall of Famer Jonathan Ogden’s retirement more than a decade ago.

University of Maryland product Jared Gaither flashed some early promise before fizzling out due to injuries and work ethic concerns. Michael Oher was a versatile gamer, but he was better at right tackle, which wasn’t what the Ravens envisioned for their 2009 first-round pick. Veteran Bryant McKinnie played well in 2011 and had a terrific 2012 postseason run, but the 30-something was never a long-term solution. The lucrative contract awarded to former Jacksonville first-round pick Eugene Monroe after a half-season of good play in Baltimore was a disaster.

But the Ravens finally nailed it with the sixth overall pick of the 2016 draft, selecting Ronnie Stanley out of Notre Dame. It wasn’t a flashy choice as future Pro Bowl selections Joey Bosa, Ezekiel Elliott, and Jalen Ramsey had just come off the board with the previous three picks and Baltimore had given Monroe a five-year, $37.5 million contract with $17.5 million guaranteed only two years earlier, but the 6-foot-6, 315-pound Stanley was rock solid from Day 1 and has only gotten better.

That was obvious in 2019 as Stanley took his above-average game to another level, earning his first trip to the Pro Bowl — he was a second alternate in 2018 — and being a first-team All-Pro selection in his fourth professional season. Pro Football Focus graded him as the best left tackle in the NFL, first among all offensive tackles in pass blocking, and 10th among all offensive tackles in run blocking. Stanley’s overall PFF grade steadily improved over his first three seasons before rising to an elite level, the kind of bump many had wanted to see as he moved a year closer to free agency.

“He has improved in everything he does,” said offensive coordinator Greg Roman after Stanley was named to the Pro Bowl in December. “I think a big part of that is improving every aspect of his preparation. The knowledge he’s accrued over the last couple of years, he’s a very intelligent young man. He’s really putting it to use. His consistency this year has been outstanding, which makes him deserving of that honor.

“He’s a constant work in progress, but run, pass, communication, assignment, technique, everything, he’s just really pushing the envelope every day on. It’s really showing on the field, and he’s a very important, key contributor to what we do.”

The focus of any offseason is understandably on new additions and a team’s own free agents scheduled to hit the open market, but that doesn’t mean extending Stanley, who remains under contract through 2020, isn’t a top priority by the time the Ravens kick off their 25th campaign in Baltimore this fall. Even if eight-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda returns for a 14th season, Stanley’s superb play and leadership shouldn’t be taken for granted with the rest of the starting offensive line all 26 year old or younger. And despite dealing with some nagging injuries at different points, Stanley has missed just three games due to injury — two because of concussions — over the last three seasons combined.

But he won’t come cheap. It’s difficult to quantify just how much MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson helps his offensive line by putting dual-threat stress on defensive fronts, but Stanley surrendered only six pressures all year and had a pass-blocking win rate of 98.7 percent, according to PFF. Those numbers trumped his peers by such a margin that dismissing his elite play solely because of Jackson’s presence would be patently unfair.

In other words, Stanley’s representation has every right to ask that he become the highest-paid left tackle in the NFL, especially since he won’t even turn 26 until next month. If you’re looking for a negotiating starting point, Tennessee and Taylor Lewan agreed to a five-year, $80 million contract that included $34 million fully guaranteed in the summer of 2018 when the left tackle was also entering his fifth-year option season, had two Pro Bowls under his belt, and was a year older than Stanley is now.

With the salary cap having risen more than $20 million since 2018 and the NFL entering the final year of its current collective bargaining agreement, the Ravens allowing Stanley to hit the open market next offseason could yield a similar result to last March when the New York Jets turned the market on its head by giving ex-Raven C.J. Mosley an $85 million contract with a $17 million average annual value, numbers that demolished the previous bests at the inside linebacker position. Stanley is set to make $12.866 million this season after general manager Eric DeCosta exercised his fifth-year option last spring.

Of course, it takes two sides to make a deal, but the Ravens doing everything they can to lock up a franchise left tackle to continue protecting their MVP quarterback in the midst of his rookie contract sounds like a no-brainer. It will be expensive, but Baltimore can’t afford to risk losing such a key piece to its record-setting offense, especially with Yanda walking away sooner than later.

Stanley isn’t Ogden — no one playing today is — but he’s the closest the Ravens have come at left tackle since the Hall of Famer hung up his cleats more than a decade ago. That’s just not the kind of player you let go after searching for him for so long.

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Yanda “to think about things” regarding future with Ravens

Posted on 17 January 2020 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The future remains bright for the Ravens despite their stunning playoff loss to Tennessee, but one of their cornerstone players must still decide whether to return next season.

Eight-time Pro Bowl selection Marshal Yanda remains one of the best guards in football late in his brilliant career, but head coach John Harbaugh confirmed the 35-year-old will “think about things going forward” before potentially playing a 14th season. Yanda remains under contract for the 2020 campaign and is scheduled to make $7 million in base salary after signing a one-year extension last spring.

“I’m all for him playing Hall of Fame football for another year if he so chooses, and I did tell him that,” said Harbaugh, who spoke to Yanda after Saturday’s loss. “I let him know that, and we had a good hug and stuff. But he’ll do what’s right for his family, and whatever he does, we’ll respect it. I just couldn’t say enough good things — great things — about Marshal Yanda and his family.”

Graded as the NFL’s fourth-best guard by Pro Football Focus and selected to his eighth Pro Bowl in the last nine seasons, Yanda was voted a second-team All-Pro by the Associated Press and named to the All-NFL team by the Pro Football Writers of America after the Ravens offense set numerous franchise records and an NFL single-season rushing mark. The 2007 third-round pick out of Iowa ranks fourth on the franchise’s career Pro Bowl selections list behind only Ray Lewis, Jonathan Ogden, and Ed Reed, three of his former teammates already enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Since missing most of the 2017 season with a broken ankle, Yanda has assessed his future on an annual basis, often noting the importance of being healthy at the conclusion of his career. The veteran lineman has missed only one game over the last two years, last month’s regular-season finale in which Harbaugh rested him and several other key starters.

Another Pro Bowl berth or two would fortify his Hall of Fame case at a position that’s historically been underrepresented in Canton, but Yanda takes pride in being a team-first player, making the disappointment of last Saturday’s loss and Baltimore’s bright prospects for 2020 more compelling reasons for his return than chasing an individual accomplishment. A Super Bowl XLVII champion and father of three children, the Iowa native didn’t shy away from calling the 2019 Ravens the best team on which he’d ever played during the season.

“I am not assessing my whole career and whatnot, but it definitely is a tough way to end,” said Yanda, who wouldn’t address his future immediately after Saturday’s loss. “How hot we ended the season, a 12-game [winning] streak, to have them come into our house and beat us at home, that’s tough.”

Judon’s free agency

Addressing the front seven of the defense is expected to be one of Baltimore’s top offseason tasks with Pro Bowl outside linebacker Matthew Judon headlining a list of unrestricted free agents.

With Judon coming off a career year that included a team-high 9 1/2 sacks and a fourth-place league finish in quarterback hits (33), Harbaugh acknowledged re-signing him would be “pretty hard” despite the Ravens “very much” wanting him back for 2020 and beyond.

“There’s no question that that’s a priority for us, and that’s something that’s really important to us,” Harbaugh said. “We’re going to try to get as many of these guys re-signed as we can. Matt is probably right at the top of the list for sure. There are a lot of things that can go into that as we all know — the business part of it.”

Offensive assistants staying put

Quarterbacks coach James Urban and tight ends coach Bobby Engram both interviewed for coaching positions with Philadelphia before withdrawing from consideration, according to Harbaugh.

Urban was a candidate for the Eagles’ offensive coordinator job while Engram had been linked to their wide receivers coach opening, a position he held with Baltimore from 2014-18. The Ravens keeping their coaching staff intact after a 14-2 season would have to be considered a mild upset after offensive coordinator Greg Roman and defensive coordinator Wink Martindale unsuccessfully interviewed for head coach openings with Cleveland and the New York Giants respectively.

“It looks like our staff is going to stay together. I can tell you that,” Harbaugh said. “I’m not saying anything couldn’t happen. There are always things brewing for a certain period of time.”

Pro Bowl plans

After agreeing to coach the AFC squad, Harbaugh said he hasn’t actively recruited any of Baltimore’s 13 Pro Bowl selections to play in next week’s spectacle, but the expected NFL MVP will indeed be going to Orlando.

Noncommittal about his Pro Bowl status after the loss to the Titans, second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson will play in the NFL’s exhibition for the stars. For now, the Ravens are scheduled to have 12 players take part in the game after right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. was added to the AFC roster and cornerback Marcus Peters dropped out earlier this week.

“Lamar wants to go. He’s fired up. I did know that,” Harbaugh said. “He told me he couldn’t wait. He didn’t have anything planned. He had no arrangements made. He didn’t know anything. He didn’t know what day he had to be there yet, but he’s excited.”

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Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry (22) runs against the Baltimore Ravens during the first half an NFL divisional playoff football game, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following playoff loss to Tennessee

Posted on 14 January 2020 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens seeing their season come to an end in a shocking 28-12 divisional-round playoff loss to Tennessee, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Those wondering how Baltimore would handle playing from behind couldn’t have liked the answer, but perception wasn’t helped watching Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City erase a 24-point deficit like it was nothing and Russell Wilson nearly bringing Seattle back at Lambeau. Improvement there is the next step for this offense.

2. Lamar Jackson was the first to say he didn’t play very well, but drops were a big problem as you could point to as many as seven passes that should have been caught — even if some weren’t on target. Another impactful wide receiver would be ideal in Jackson’s continued development.

3. I’m not sure why Gus Edwards received so few touches with Mark Ingram not 100 percent, but the last drive of the first half (13 dropbacks) and the fourth quarter (27 dropbacks) really skewed the run-pass ratio on which many are dwelling. Still, Greg Roman seemed out of sorts.

4. Committing to run is tough when gaining 38 yards on the first 22 first-down plays. However, as Twitter user @Yoshi2052 noted, there wasn’t a designed run on first down after the 9:03 mark of the second quarter. Baltimore netted one yard or worse on 24 of 40 first-down snaps. Yuck.

5. Tennessee’s 217 rushing yards were the fourth most allowed by the Ravens in team history. A run defense ranking 21st in yards per carry allowed (a franchise-worst 4.4) and 19th in efficiency benefited from playing with big leads all season. Upgrades at inside and outside linebacker are in order.

6. It was a tough time for Pro Bowl outside linebacker Matthew Judon to have one of his worst games. His missed tackle on a Ryan Tannehill third-down scramble extended the Titans’ first touchdown drive, and he missed another on Derrick Henry’s soul-crushing 66-yard run in the third quarter.

7. Sorry, I’m not going to knock John Harbaugh for doing what he did all year on fourth-and-1 situations after the Ravens went 8-for-8 in that department during the regular season. You’re going to bust sometimes at the Blackjack table, and it just happened at the worst possible time — twice.

8. The Titans were set up on a short field for three of their four touchdowns, but the Baltimore defense offered no sudden-change impact or resistance inside the red zone. The Ravens just couldn’t make the game-changing play on either side of the ball all night.

9. Few Ravens players stood out against Tennessee in positive ways, but Marquise Brown reminded once again why his future is bright with an offseason to now get his surgically-repaired foot 100 percent. His slight stature will always be a concern, but some unique ability is there.

10. Special teams offered no favors with a Brynden Trawick hold and a silly De’Anthony Thomas foul for blocking after calling a fair catch backing Baltimore up on second-quarter drives. The latter may have been the difference in needing to settle for a field goal before halftime.

11. After dominating with a 7-1 record and an incredible plus-159 point differential on the road this season, the Ravens fell to 3-4 in all-time home playoff games. They obviously earned the top seed with a 14-2 record, but home-field advantage probably wasn’t all that critical for this particular team.

12. While some opine about rust, is it possible blowing out Pittsburgh without Jackson in Week 17 left the Ravens feeling a bit too invincible going into the bye week as the world sang how great they were? It’s all conjecture, of course. The best team doesn’t always win. 

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Ravens must endure “hard truth” until back on January stage

Posted on 13 January 2020 by Luke Jones

A few Ravens players described it as a nightmare, hoping to wake up Saturday morning with a mulligan.

Matthew Judon compared it to a car crash.

Lamar Jackson said the offense got “too excited” and out of its element “a little too fast” after falling behind early.

There was much blame to go around and plenty of theories why top-seeded Baltimore suffered a stunning 28-12 loss to Tennessee in the divisional round, but Marlon Humphrey’s words stung most for a team that had gone an NFL-best 14-2, won 12 straight games, and rewritten both the franchise and league record books during a magical regular season.

“We’ve been here two years in a row, and we’ve lost,” said Humphrey, citing last January’s wild-card home defeat to the Los Angeles Chargers. “I think you’ve got to look yourself in the mirror, and I think this team right now, its identity is to get in the playoffs and choke. It is what it is. That’s just the hard truth.”

The “choke” word is harsh, but it comes from someone who won a national championship and finished as runner-up in his other collegiate season at Alabama, where the standard is college football’s highest. When you dominate the NFL for three months before seeing your Super Bowl aspirations crumble in three hours against a 9-7 team in your home stadium, there are few scenarios in the sporting realm where the term is more appropriate. Setting numerous records and finishing with the NFL’s highest point differential (plus-249) since 16-0 New England in 2007, the Ravens indeed fell short of the expectations they’d created for themselves, let alone what media or fans anticipated going into the playoffs.

No matter how disappointing Saturday night was in Baltimore, the future remains as bright for the Ravens as any team in football. Jackson was far from his best — as you could say about virtually every other Raven against the Titans — but the dynamic 23-year-old will be the NFL MVP and leads a young, innovative, and record-setting offense with virtually everyone under contract for 2020. Barring something completely unforeseen, coordinators Greg Roman and Wink Martindale will both return after failing to land head coaching jobs elsewhere. And thanks to having a franchise quarterback entering the third season of his rookie contract, general manager Eric DeCosta begins the offseason with over $30 million in salary cap space before any potential maneuvering to clear more room.

But there are no guarantees, which makes laying the divisional-round egg that much more difficult to accept. Despite how easy the Ravens made it look all season, so much has to go remarkably well to go 14-2 and secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, some of it out of a team’s control. That’s not to say such a sterling record or the top seed is a requisite for a championship — the 2000 and 2012 teams send their regards — but luck plays a bigger part in a Super Bowl run than most want to admit. A first-round bye and playing at home is like being able to hedge your bets, much like John Harbaugh did by wisely not risking injury to Jackson and the handful of other key starters in the regular-season finale against Pittsburgh.

Optimists will frame this as part of Baltimore’s journey to its next Super Bowl title, recalling the heartbreak of the 2011 AFC Championship game and how the 2012 Ravens would go on to finish the job despite not achieving the same level of regular-season success. On the other hand, the 2006 Ravens lost at home to Indianapolis in the divisional round and regressed from a then-franchise-best 13-3 record to a 5-11 injury-plagued disaster in 2007.

Of the previous five NFL teams to secure a No. 1 seed and lose in the divisional round, two got to the Super Bowl the next year and lost, one fell in the divisional round again, another lost a wild-card playoff game, and the most recent — the 2016 Dallas Cowboys — failed to even reach the postseason the following year. The Denver Broncos (2012) would wait three years to win a Super Bowl while the Patriots (2010) wouldn’t win their next NFL championship for four more years after losing in the divisional round as No. 1 seeds. Those other three are still waiting for that redemptive Super Bowl title years later.

The Ravens indeed let a massive opportunity slip through their fingers, no matter how promising the future looks on paper.

The next 12 months will be a grind, for everyone from DeCosta and Harbaugh to Jackson and every other returning Raven who left the field in disappointment Saturday night. There are probably parallels you can draw with the infamous Super Bowl loser hangover except there being no January success from which Baltimore can draw after so much regular-season success.

Compartmentalizing and not giving into any thoughts of complacency or obsession about the postseason will be an unspoken challenge in the coming days, weeks, and months. As Harbaugh likes to say, you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse, a message he’ll surely convey over and over to his players from the moment they return to the team facility for the start of the offseason training program in April.

Fair or not, every shred of success next season will be met by a detractor saying, “That’s great, but what about January?” And there’s little the Ravens will really be able to say or do about that until next postseason — if all goes according to plan, of course.

Saturday’s defeat shouldn’t ruin what was the best regular season in franchise history. But much like the 2006 team that previously held that distinction and was much fun in its own right, these Ravens disappointed mightily in the postseason, the time when legacies are defined and feelings entrenched.

That’s just the hard truth.

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Baltimore Ravens running back Gus Edwards runs for a touchdown against the Houston Texans during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

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With Ingram limited, Edwards ready for main role if called upon

Posted on 08 January 2020 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — With running back Mark Ingram still not practicing after apparently suffering a setback, the Ravens aren’t panicking ahead of their divisional playoff meeting with Tennessee.

As offensive coordinator Greg Roman put it, the Ravens “really don’t have to skip a beat” if Ingram can’t play, evident by their 223-yard rushing performance against a tough Pittsburgh defense in the regular-season finale two weeks ago. That’s not to say Baltimore isn’t hoping to have its Pro Bowl running back, who hasn’t played or practiced since injuring his left calf against Cleveland in Week 16.

“It’s day to day, so we’ll see. But that’s how it is in this league,” Roman said. “You’ve just got to be ready to adapt and adjust as it happens. Like in the course of a game, it happened a couple weeks ago against Cleveland. We had to make some adjustments there.”

The main adjustment would be turning to top backup Gus Edwards, who averaged 5.3 yards per carry this season and rushed for a career-high 130 yards against the Steelers in Week 17. The former rookie free agent from Rutgers led the Ravens in rushing last season and has served as one of the best short-yardage backs in the NFL this season, rushing for first downs on 34.6 percent of his attempts this season.

Averaging 5.3 yards per carry and rushing for 1,429 yards over his first two seasons, the 6-foot-1, 238-pound back is eager to show the Titans — or anyone else — he’s capable of being the feature back. Pro Football Focus has graded Edwards 26th among running backs this season.

“I like to take every rep with that mindset that it’s my opportunity to show what I can do,” Edwards said. “It’s unfortunate what Mark is going through right now, but I’ve got to step up. That’s why I’m here. I’m here to make plays, and I’m here to run the ball and help my team win games.”

While there should be little question about Edwards’ ability to run effectively against Tennessee’s 12th-ranked rush defense, the Saturday forecast calls for rain showers that could test the chemistry between Edwards and quarterback Lamar Jackson at the mesh point of Baltimore’s frequent read-option plays. The second-year back cited plenty of practice reps with Jackson as reason not to be concerned, but a couple miscues in the turnover department are seemingly what the Titans need in their effort to pull off a second-round upset.

Edwards had a fumble in each of the final two games of the regular season, but neither came on the hand-off from the quarterback.

“Ball handling and ball security comes into mind,” said Edwards of the wet forecast. “It’s a big part of the game, especially in the playoffs and especially in our offense where we’re running the ball so much. We definitely have to keep that in mind and protect the football.”

Should Ingram not be able to play in Saturday’s game, the Ravens may elect to promote either Byron Marshall or the newly signed Paul Perkins as a third running back behind Edwards and rookie Justice Hill on the game-day roster.

Tight end Mark Andrews is the only other Baltimore player on the injury report for a health-related reason as he continues to be limited with a right ankle injury sustained in Week 16. His availability doesn’t appear to be in question, but his speed and mobility will be worth monitoring after a three-week layoff from game action.

The Ravens made a 53-man roster move Wednesday by placing reserve offensive lineman Parker Ehinger (shoulder) on injured reserve and signing veteran offensive tackle Andre Smith. The longtime Cincinnati Bengal and former first-round pick from Alabama has made 98 starts in his NFL career and last appeared in a game in November.

Meanwhile, the Titans were again without inside linebacker Jayon Brown (shoulder) and cornerback Adoree’ Jackson (foot) for Thursday’s practice. Wide receiver Adam Humphries (ankle) is not expected to play and has been sidelined since early December.

Below is Wednesday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: RB Mark Ingram (calf), DT Brandon Williams (non-injury)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: TE Mark Andrews (ankle)
FULL PARTICIPATION: CB Jimmy Smith (non-injury), S Earl Thomas (non-injury)

TENNESSEE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: LB Jayon Brown (shoulder), LB Kamalei Correa (illness), WR Adam Humphries (ankle), CB Adoree’ Jackson (foot)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: G Nate Davis (illness), RB Dion Lewis (shoulder)
FULL PARTICIPATION: WR Cody Hollister (ankle), WR Kalif Raymond (concussion)

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As honors pour in, Jackson keeps sights on bigger prize for Ravens

Posted on 04 January 2020 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — With Lamar Jackson always quick to credit teammates for his individual success, it’s no wonder another Ravens player would try to accept the quarterback’s latest honor.

As the announcement was being made that Jackson had been voted as team MVP unanimously by the local media, Matthew Judon made a beeline to the podium at the conclusion of Baltimore’s bye week, drawing much laughter. You get the sense Jackson wouldn’t have minded the Pro Bowl outside linebacker receiving the honor, which speaks to the gravitational pull of his leadership within the organization.

“Anyone could have been MVP, I feel. Everyone is MVP because without them, there’s no me,” said Jackson, who was also named to the Associated Press first-team All-Pro team Friday. “I thank the coaching staff, [reporters], my teammates. It’s a team award to me.”

The honors have continued to pour in for the NFL MVP favorite in his second season, but Jackson remains focused on fulfilling the promise he made the night he was drafted less than two years ago — bringing the Ravens their next Super Bowl. Last January’s playoff loss continues to motivate Jackson as he’ll finally have his next postseason chance in the divisional round next Saturday.

Jackson says that hasn’t altered his preparation this week — though an illness did — but his individual accolades and a 14-2 regular season don’t mean anything if the Ravens don’t feel the urgency to play their best football after their bye week.

“You have to go into each and every game the same way,” Jackson said. “This playoff game is a Super Bowl game because if you don’t win, you’re out. You’re going home until next season. I’m treating every game like it’s a Super Bowl game until I’m in there and it says ‘Super Bowl’ across.”

Coordinator interviews

Head coach John Harbaugh said Wink Martindale’s Saturday meeting with the New York Giants and Greg Roman’s meeting with Cleveland on Thursday are the only head coach openings for which his coordinators have scheduled to interview as of yet.

However, the organization granting those requests hasn’t stopped players from trying to keep their coordinators in Baltimore.

“I think he would make a great head coach,” said Judon about Martindale. “But I don’t want to talk about it because I don’t want to lose him. We’ve got some unfinished business. At the end of the season, whenever it happens, talk to me then about it and you’ll see how I feel.”

In his second season as defensive coordinator, Martindale navigated his unit’s early struggles and in-season changes for the Ravens to finish fourth in total defense, third in scoring defense, and fourth in Football Outsiders’ efficiency metric.

Meanwhile, Roman has orchestrated a record-setting offense that’s indeed revolutionized the NFL as Harbaugh predicted in the offseason. With the Ravens setting a single-season league rushing record and becoming the first team in NFL history to average 200 rushing yards and 200 passing yards per game in the regular season, Jackson wants other teams to get in line for their shot at hiring his offensive coordinator.

“They need to chill out. We have something to do right now,” said Jackson as he smiled. “We need him to focus because we need to focus. We’re trying to get somewhere. Let us do ours. You guys are going to have your turn when the season is over with. Just chill — we’re trying to get somewhere.”

Injury report

Pro Bowl running back Mark Ingram missed practice all week while continuing to recover from a left calf injury sustained in Week 16, but the Ravens remain optimistic about a return for the divisional round.

“He’s on track to play,” Harbaugh said. “He should be practicing next week full speed.”

Wide receiver Marquise Brown, defensive tackle Brandon Williams, and offensive linemen Ben Powers and Parker Ehinger were also absent from Friday’s practice as players now enjoy the weekend off.

Tight end Hayden Hurst returned to the field Friday after being one of several players under the weather this week, according to Harbaugh. Jackson practiced for the second straight day Friday and says he’s fully recovered from the illness with which he’d been dealing since last weekend.

“I really don’t get sick. It was like a stomach bug, kind of, but it was weird — nasty feeling, numbness,” Jackson said. “But I was good; I just couldn’t practice. I didn’t want to get around anybody on my team, especially when we need to work. We need to get better each and every day we can. But I’m over it. I’m good, I’m 100 [percent] right now.”

“Good Guy” award

In addition to Jackson predictably being voted team MVP, the local media chose right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. as the “Good Guy” winner.

The honor goes to a Ravens player who goes above and beyond regular media obligations to help reporters do their jobs. It was a tight vote among Brown, right guard Marshal Yanda, and wide receiver Willie Snead.

“You guys are very invested in us as a team and as individuals,” Brown said. “I just try to do my best to deliver. I do my job as a football player, which is talking to you guys and expressing my emotions.”

As a token of appreciation, local reporters will make a donation in Brown’s name to the Ed Block Courage Award Foundation.

Below is a history of the team MVP and “Good Guy” selections (in that order) dating back to the awards’ introduction by the local media in 2003:

2003: Jamal Lewis, Gary Baxter
2004: Ed Reed, Anthony Weaver
2005: Adalius Thomas, Jamal Lewis
2006: Steve McNair, Bart Scott
2007: Willis McGahee, Derrick Mason
2008: Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs
2009: Ray Rice, Jarret Johnson
2010: Haloti Ngata, Chris Carr
2011: Ray Rice, Bernard Pollard
2012: Ray Rice, Arthur Jones
2013: Justin Tucker, Joe Flacco
2014: Justin Forsett, Torrey Smith
2015: Marshal Yanda, Jimmy Smith
2016: Justin Tucker, Zachary Orr
2017: Terrell Suggs, Eric Weddle
2018: Marlon Humphrey, Brandon Carr
2019: Lamar Jackson, Orlando Brown Jr.

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Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson throws a pass against the New York Jets during the first half of an NFL football game, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

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Jackson, eight other Ravens players absent from Tuesday’s practice

Posted on 31 December 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — With an open week to work on fundamentals before learning their opponent for the divisional round, the Ravens hit the practice field without the expected NFL MVP on Tuesday.

Quarterback Lamar Jackson is one of a few players dealing with the flu, according to John Harbaugh. The 12th-year head coach had thought Jackson would practice on Tuesday, but the Ravens are wise to play it safe with no game this weekend and players already scheduled to be off on New Year’s Day before returning to work Thursday. Jackson has been dealing with the illness since at least the weekend.

Head athletic trainer Ron Medlin often sends players home when they’re under the weather in an effort to avoid the spreading of germs, but the locker room wasn’t open to the media on Tuesday, leaving it unclear if Jackson was at the team facility.

“We should be fine. He was on the sideline [Sunday]. I don’t think he felt great, but he was down there,” Harbaugh said Monday. “And I made a point to give him an elbow bump. There were no handshakes.”

Eight other Baltimore players were absent from Tuesday’s practice, a list including running back Mark Ingram (calf), tight ends Mark Andrews (ankle) and Hayden Hurst, offensive linemen James Hurst (arm) and Ben Powers, defensive backs Brandon Carr and Jordan Richards, and defensive lineman Chris Wormley.

On Monday, Harbaugh said Ingram remained “on schedule” to return for next week’s divisional round after completing a running workout while Andrews continues to be slowed by a minor ankle injury sustained in Week 16. The Pro Bowl tight end was a limited participant in last Friday’s practice and didn’t complete his usual pre-game warmup with the other Ravens tight ends prior to being deactivated for Sunday’s win against Pittsburgh.

“There was a chance he was going to go in the game,” Harbaugh said. “He was a game-time decision and didn’t feel good, didn’t feel right before the game. That’s why he was inactive.”

Baltimore isn’t required to release an injury report this week.

With the Ravens facing the lowest surviving seed of Houston, Buffalo, and Tennessee in the divisional round on Jan. 11, offensive coordinator Greg Roman acknowledged Ravens coaches are spending more time on the Titans this week since Baltimore played both the Texans and Bills in the second half of the regular season. The coaching staff will still revisit the latter two teams in their preliminary preparation before ultimately learning which one they’ll play by the conclusion of Saturday’s Bills-Texans and Titans-New England wild-card games.

Roman wouldn’t disclose when he would interview for Cleveland’s head coach opening, reiterating that his focus remains on preparing the Ravens offense for a long playoff run. Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale confirmed the New York Giants have requested to interview him for their open head coach job, but he didn’t discuss any other specifics, repeating what he said last week that it would take a “dream” scenario for him to leave the Ravens.

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Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, right, talks with San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, left, on the field before the start of the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019, in Baltimore, Md. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

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Week 17 win reinforces Harbaugh as right choice for NFL Coach of the Year

Posted on 30 December 2019 by Luke Jones

The Ravens didn’t need to win Sunday’s game, evident by the decision to sit MVP favorite Lamar Jackson and five other Pro Bowl selections after clinching the AFC’s No. 1 seed the previous week.

Sure, finishing a franchise-best 14-2 regular season, extending their team-record winning streak to 12 games, setting a few more records, and knocking AFC North rival Pittsburgh out of playoff contention were attractive carrots before the first-round bye, but none of those feats improved their chances of winning the Super Bowl, the ultimate goal for the best team in football. Sunday could have amounted to nothing more than three hours of holding your breath hoping Baltimore wouldn’t sustain any injuries that would harm a playoff run, and such a mindset would have been perfectly understandable.

But the 45 players who took part in Sunday’s game didn’t see it that way, perhaps the best testament yet to the culture overseen by head coach John Harbaugh — one that began being shaped years ago.

It would have been easy to coast in a game of no tangible consequence. Established veterans who did play could have taken exception to not being anointed as someone valuable enough to hold out. Young players could have lacked focus seeing Jackson and other veteran leaders in street clothes.

The Ravens not only won, but they flattened a Steelers team that had everything to play for. To perform in such a way without several of their best players should serve as an emphatic period for Harbaugh winning the NFL Coach of the Year award for the first time — in case you needed more convincing.

However, a look at recent award winners suggests Harbaugh probably isn’t the slam-dunk choice he should be with voters. The award is often bestowed on the coach who oversaw the most improvement in the win-loss department from the previous season — usually a difficult one — or who endured a degree of adversity that shapes a compelling narrative. How else do you explain Bill Belichick winning only three times in his two decades in New England?

On the surface, the Ravens’ four-game improvement in the win department from last year pales in comparison to Kyle Shanahan and San Francisco going from a 4-12 record in 2018 to a 13-3 mark and the top seed in the NFC. Baltimore lost several key veterans in the offseason, dealt with its share of injuries early on, and looked quite mortal after back-to-back losses in September to fall to 2-2, but Sean Payton navigating Drew Brees’ six-game absence and other injuries to a 13-3 record for New Orleans makes for a more compelling story.

Shanahan and Payton are two of several candidates worthy of consideration, but anyone trying to shortchange Harbaugh’s case on the grounds that he has the best team in the league, the overwhelming MVP favorite, 12 Pro Bowl selections, two coveted coordinators, and a highly respected front office is to ignore the process that brought Baltimore to this point as one of the best regular-season teams we’ve seen over the last three decades.

Even if you want to chalk up Jackson’s transcendent play to other teams simply being blind to his upside and impressive drive to be great, Harbaugh and the Ravens embraced his unique skills, promoted Greg Roman to offensive coordinator, and rebuilt their offensive system from the ground up this offseason to cater to his strengths even after a surprising 6-1 finish and trip to the playoffs last year. After Harbaugh spoke of an offensive revolution that drew plenty of skepticism this offseason, Baltimore rewrote the franchise record book, set a new NFL single-season rushing mark, and became the first team in league history to average more than 200 passing yards and 200 rushing yards per game. The Ravens used play fakes and pre-snap movement better than anyone in the league to put additional pressure on a defense already trying to account for what could be the greatest rushing quarterback in NFL history who also showed substantial improvement with his accuracy this season.

“John is the one who really orchestrated the vision for this offense and kind of set us on our way to do it and painted the perimeters and painted a picture of what he wanted it to look like and let us do our job,” said Roman, who’s now drawing interesting as a potential head coach elsewhere. “That speaks highly of a leader. But really, the three years I’ve been here, it’s all about football. It’s all about getting better, and that serves us all. We don’t waste time.”

Harbaugh also doesn’t waste in-game opportunity, which is why the football analytics community continues to praise the Ravens coach for his grasp of win probability and leverage on fourth downs in an age when so many coaches are still more concerned with merely prolonging the game or keeping the score respectable with conservative decisions rather than giving their teams the best chance to win.

It isn’t just about redefining offense in the NFL or going for it on fourth-and-short in their own territory, however. For years, Harbaugh has consulted with a leadership council of veterans to monitor potential issues in the locker room or to simply gauge when it might be time to take the foot off the gas for a given practice. Sometimes it’s a gesture as simple as allowing players to play music in the pre-game locker room to ease anxiety or to invite the families of coaches and players to spend time at the training facility.

This all goes into the culture that’s been shaped for years and has gone to new heights with the transcendent Jackson leading the way on the field. You don’t absorb as many newcomers on defense as seamlessly as the Ravens did in the middle of the season without talented coaches and a healthy locker room to make it work and to reap the rewards for a defense that’s become a very worthy partner to a record-setting offense.

Such an environment helps explain why the Ravens played with such tenacity in a game that didn’t mean much for their ultimate goal. Many within the organization have had important roles in creating that atmosphere over the years, but Harbaugh’s day-to-day vision has put the Ravens in position to do something special in 2019 with more to come in the new year.

“I wasn’t afraid to talk about this in March or April or May or June or July or August or September, and we got laughed at quite a bit, you know?” Harbaugh said. “But that’s OK. If they aren’t laughing at you, your dreams aren’t big enough. We’ve got big dreams, big goals, big ambitions, big faith, ‘big truss,’ alright? That was not planned either.

“We’re not afraid to step out there and speak from the heart on those kinds of things.”

That mindset and the success that’s followed make Harbaugh the right choice for NFL Coach of the Year, whether voters ultimately see it that way or not.

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Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson throws a pass against the New York Jets during the first half of an NFL football game, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

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Electric passing efficiency driving Lamar Jackson to historic MVP season

Posted on 14 December 2019 by Luke Jones

The post-game question about the record made Lamar Jackson’s eyes grow wide as he then pumped his fist, but it wasn’t the same accomplishment everyone else was talking about on Thursday night.

The Ravens quarterback made clear he would always “cherish” breaking the NFL single-season quarterback rushing record held by Michael Vick. However, learning he had tied Vinny Testaverde’s franchise-best mark for touchdown passes in a season prompted an enthusiastic reaction from the man determined to be known as much more than just a running quarterback.

“Throwing them. No running records — besides the little rushing record,” said Jackson as he smiled. “But throwing, that’s amazing.”

His unparalleled athleticism at the quarterback position and ability to make NFL defenders look like awkward adolescents in the open field take center stage on SportsCenter and social media, but you really do believe Jackson when he tells you he’d rather throw than run. And his passing efficiency has cemented his status as the clear-cut favorite to win the league’s most valuable player award. The five-touchdown performance in the 42-21 win over the New York Jets gave Jackson seven more touchdown throws than any quarterback in the NFL despite 22 others having more passing attempts even before the remainder of Week 15 play on Sunday and Monday.

We know the success of Baltimore’s top-ranked scoring offense begins with a rushing attack that’s already shattered the old franchise record set by the 2003 team that featured 2,000-yard rusher Jamal Lewis, but Jackson has eaten defenses alive in the red zone, throwing 22 touchdowns without an interception for a 110.8 passer rating in that area. Entering Sunday, the Ravens had attempted fewer passes than all but three other teams this season, but Jackson has been superb when throwing, improving his completion percentage from 58.2 as a rookie to 66.2 percent (11th in the NFL) this season.

Tight end Mark Andrews and rookie wide receiver Marquise Brown are his top targets with a combined 15 touchdown receptions, but Jackson threw a touchdown to five different players against the Jets on Thursday, meaning eight different Ravens have now caught at least two touchdowns this season. The volume of targets may not be there for a group more frequently asked to do the dirty work of blocking in the run game, but the connections certainly are when called upon.

“That’s just the chemistry and hard work. We’re taking practice like it’s a game,” Jackson said. “That’s one thing I had to work on individually by myself. Because our guys work so hard, I’ve been wanting to throw dimes to them and make sure to make their job a lot easier catching them in stride, and they just help me out by catching the ball and doing what they do.”

The combination of Jackson’s explosive running and passing efficiency is unlike anything we’ve seen, already dating the predictable comparisons to Vick as the former has already thrown more touchdowns and completed a higher percentage of passes in a season than his favorite player did at any point in his career. Ironically, this 22-year-old quarterback and run-first offense that many say are changing the game are doing things you have to go back generations to find comparisons.

Jackson has 33 touchdown passes this season in 370 passing attempts, 179 fewer than Testaverde in 1996 and 142 fewer throws than Jameis Winston with his 26 touchdowns and 23 interceptions entering Week 15. The only other quarterbacks to throw 33 or more touchdowns in 370 or fewer pass attempts in a season were Y.A. Tittle in 1963 and George Blanda in 1961, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.

What other quarterbacks have thrown 30 or more touchdowns in a season while passing for fewer than 3,000 yards? Just Len Dawson in 1964 and Johnny Unitas in 1959 — the first of three MVP seasons for the Baltimore legend.

Dating back to 1950, a quarterback has thrown five or more touchdowns in 23 or fewer pass attempts in a game only 31 times. Only nine have occurred in the 21st century with Jackson responsible for three this season. Only two other quarterbacks — Eddie LeBaron and Craig Morton — had even done that twice in their entire careers.

Such numbers shouldn’t be interpreted as perfect comparisons across eras of football with very different rules, but they do make you think back to John Harbaugh’s offseason comments about an offensive “revolution” and using offensive concepts not seen in the NFL in decades. The combination of an offense designed perfectly for its quarterback’s strengths and Jackson’s unique skills and markedly improved accuracy have resulted in the Ravens sporting the league’s most devastating offense.

It’s a perfect marriage that’s just getting started, a terrifying thought for the rest of the league. Jackson understandably garners more attention for his exhilarating rushing ability, but the steps he’s already taken as a passer — one who won’t turn 23 until next month — should dismiss the questions about his career longevity beyond the usual injury risk any NFL player assumes.

Jackson may no longer be a 1,000-yard rusher in three years, five years, or a decade from now, but the passing acumen he’s already displaying makes you more and more confident that he won’t need to be.

He’s the deserved MVP and only getting better for the NFL’s best team riding a 10-game winning streak and needing one more victory to lock up home-field advantage throughout the postseason.

“It starts with the quarterback playing well. He’s played well for a long time now,” said 13th-year guard and seven-time Pro Bowl selection Marshal Yanda. “As far as [him] being a young player, you would think — I’m thinking in the back of my mind — sooner or later he’s going to have a young, second-year growing-pains game, and the kid just keeps playing winning football.”

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

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 12 win over Rams

Posted on 26 November 2019 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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