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Confidence in Jackson evident as he plays Ravens “closer” in Week 2 win

Posted on 15 September 2019 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens were clinging to a 23-17 lead in a game much closer than many anticipated.

The defense had forced back-to-back three-and-outs against Arizona, but impressive rookie quarterback Kyler Murray had made enough throws and Baltimore had experienced enough breakdowns in coverage over the course of Sunday afternoon to worry. Facing a third-and-11 at their own 44-yard line with 3:05 remaining, the Ravens punting the ball back to the Cardinals was an uncomfortable thought.

“You need a closer, man,” outside linebacker Matthew Judon said. “You need somebody to go out there, do the dirty work, and get it done.”

Such a third-and-long situation last year likely would have called for a run, which sometimes even worked and would have at least kept the clock running with Arizona out of timeouts. Or, perhaps a simple run-pass option to set up an easy underneath throw or the possibility of Lamar Jackson keeping the ball, getting to the edge, and outrunning the defense to move the chains.

Not anymore.

Offensive coordinator Greg Roman showed just how confident the Ravens are in their 22-year-old quarterback and his arm with an empty backfield and speedy rookie Marquise Brown in the slot. Jackson went for the jugular.

“We’ve got to get the first down,” Jackson said. “There’s man coverage on him, no safety help over top, and he ran a great route. I just had to make a great throw. He came down with the catch. I had other options, but that was the best one to go to at the time.”

Even with tight coverage on the play, Cardinals cornerback Tramaine Brock didn’t have a chance. It was a perfect throw and a great catch for 41 yards.

“That was a great pass,” said Brown, who finished with eight catches for 86 yards. “I seen it in the air, I’m like, ‘Oh, this is money right here.’ I couldn’t mess that one up.”

Ballgame. You can cross another question off the list as Jackson made an MVP-like throw in the clutch to seal a narrow victory.

Following his record-setting performance in last week’s 59-10 blowout win over Miami, Jackson became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 270 yards and run for 120, dual-threat production that was needed with Ravens running backs gaining a pedestrian 62 yards on 17 carries. Any remaining critics — who are dropping like flies these days — will again try to point to below-average competition while ignoring the obvious.

The Ravens may have something really special on their hands.

That’s not to say Jackson was perfect on Sunday. After a first half closely resembling the Dolphins game by going 12-for-16 for 171 yards and two touchdown passes to Mark Andrews and Hayden Hurst, Jackson appeared frustrated at times in the second half, missing a few open throws and going 11-for-20 for 60 yards before the game-sealing strike to Brown. The second-year quarterback was happy with the win after the game, but he lamented penalties and missed opportunities that led to only six points in the second half.

It was another excellent performance, but one not good enough for Jackson, a quality that’s going to allow him to be as good as he can possibly be. That mindset is why teammates and coaches were so excited seeing his improvement throughout the offseason.

There will be some bumps in the road ahead, but the throw he delivered when the Ravens needed it most is why they’ll have plenty of confidence going into Arrowhead Stadium next week. After nearly grinding out an upset with its ball-control offense against the Chiefs last December, Baltimore now has to believe it can hang if this rematch turns into more of a shootout between Jackson and 2018 league MVP Patrick Mahomes.

After throwing for just under 600 yards and seven touchdowns — the latter already surpassing his total from his rookie campaign — in his first two games of 2019, Jackson has given future opponents much to consider beyond his legs, which were working just fine against the Cardinals. Defensive coordinators preparing for the Ravens won’t be getting much sleep until further notice.

“They’re going to have to figure it out for themselves,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “But this league has a lot of smart people and a lot of great players. As Lamar well knows, they’ll be chasing our scheme. We’ll play one of the best teams in the league next week in Kansas City. The stadium will be rocking. It’ll be deafening.

“We’re going to have to be a much better football team next week than we have been last week or this week. That’s just the way the league works.”

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earlthomas

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Ravens-Dolphins: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 07 September 2019 by Luke Jones

Sunday marks the official beginning of a new era for the Ravens.

Of course, the soft opening of the Lamar Jackson era last year brought the first AFC North championship since 2012 and a return to the playoffs after a three-year absence, but the Ravens have since said farewell to future Hall of Famer Terrell Suggs, four-time Pro Bowl linebacker C.J. Mosley, six-time Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle, and 2018 team sacks leader Za’Darius Smith in addition to former Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco. The mass exodus from the NFL’s top-ranked defense leaves Baltimore without a former first-round pick at outside linebacker or in its entire front seven for the first time in franchise history, putting more pressure on a deep and talented secondary to account for concerns about the pass rush.

How quickly a younger defense adjusts and a rebuilt offense grows will determine how successful John Harbaugh’s team will be in 2019. The first test comes against Miami, a rebuilding team with no immediate direction beyond collecting assets for the future.

It’s time to go on the record as the Dolphins play the Ravens for the sixth time in the last seven seasons with the latter winning four of the previous five meetings. Baltimore leads the all-time regular-season series 7-6 despite a 3-5 record at what is now called Hard Rock Stadium. That doesn’t include the Ravens’ two postseason victories in Miami during the 2001 and 2008 campaigns.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Lamar Jackson will start fast with a touchdown pass and a run for a score. I’m really looking forward to watching Jackson in his first full year as a starter and expect the Ravens to be more aggressive passing the ball in the first half, especially on first downs when he completed just under 68 percent of his throws and produced a 100.6 passer rating on 56 attempts last year. That said, there isn’t much experience in that Miami front seven to expect the discipline to contain Jackson’s mobility on zone-read plays and run-pass options, which will lead to some rushing opportunities off the edge.

2. A communication breakdown will lead to a Ryan Fitzpatrick touchdown to Albert Wilson. We all know the story with Fitzpatrick, who is capable of getting into a groove in which he torches opponents and then reverts to looking like one of the worst quarterbacks in the league. Meanwhile, Wink Martindale has said the biggest challenge in replacing the veterans on his defense has been communication with the pre-snap adjustments and disguise the Ravens use. Even against a below-average offense, a hiccup won’t be surprising considering how little starters played in the preseason.

3. Tight coverage will contribute to four sacks and an Earl Thomas pick in his Ravens debut. I’m admittedly not a believer in the pass rush going into 2019, but that won’t be a problem Sunday with the Dolphins replacing both of their starting offensive tackles and coming off a season in which they surrendered 52 sacks. Strong pass coverage will again help create sacks for the Ravens this season, but Thomas reminded this week he was brought to Baltimore to help create more turnovers. He’ll get one against an overly-aggressive and desperate Fitzpatrick in the second half.

4. Mark Ingram will headline a 215-yard effort from the Baltimore ground game. We’ll see more offensive balance from the Ravens this season, but not when they have a lead in the second half as they will Sunday. The Dolphins ranked 31st in run defense and 26th in yards per carry allowed at 4.8 last year, and there’s little reason to think that will markedly improve under new head coach Brian Flores. Ingram will carry the workload in the first half, but Greg Roman will mix in more carries to Gus Edwards and rookie Justice Hill after intermission to shorten the game.

5. The Ravens do what they’re supposed to do in a 30-10 win over a bad football team. You gladly take this kind of road game on your schedule, but there’s little upside from an eyeball test perspective with the Dolphins front office tanking in 2019. The Ravens simply need to play a clean football game in which they take care of the ball, minimize penalties, and take what Miami gives them. It’s in Martindale’s nature to be aggressive on defense, but Fitzpatrick is the kind of quarterback who will eventually give you the game the longer you remain disciplined. We know anything can happen in the NFL and Miami still has some talented football players on both sides of the ball, but there’s little excuse for Harbaugh’s team to leave South Florida without a season-opening win.

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After much offseason talk, Ravens offense finally to be on display

Posted on 04 September 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Asked what he hoped fans would be saying about the Ravens offense after Sunday’s opener in Miami, Lamar Jackson paused briefly and smiled.

“Hopefully that it’s the best offense they’ve ever seen,” the 22-year-old quarterback said. “That’s what I’m going for.”

That statement wasn’t made with bravado as much as excitement. After an offseason of discussion, hype, speculation, and probably even some fibbing about the rebuilt system under new coordinator Greg Roman, the Ravens offense will finally be on display against the Dolphins.

So, what exactly can we expect?

Head coach John Harbaugh has alluded to the offense being “revolutionary” while we’ve heard conflicting suggestions even within the organization about how frequently Jackson will run after setting a single-season record for rushing attempts by a quarterback as a rookie. The Ravens will again walk the fine line between keeping Jackson out of harm’s way and not stifling what truly makes him special as a quarterback.

A multiple-look running game, pre-snap movement, and explosive play-action passing were staples for Roman in San Francisco and Buffalo where his offenses averaged close to a 50-50 split of runs and passes and ranked in the top seven in yards per pass attempt in three out of five full seasons. It’s no secret his fingerprints were all over the revamped offense we saw down the stretch last season when Jackson took over for an injured Joe Flacco, but Roman’s history suggests we won’t see the Ravens running at a near 2-to-1 clip like they did over the final seven weeks of 2018. That said, 10 of Baltimore’s 16 games this season come against defenses that ranked in the bottom 10 in yards per carry allowed.

The Ravens consulted with college coaches this offseason such as Paul Johnson, who famously ran the triple option offense at Navy and then Georgia Tech. They streamlined the language within the offense to better align with the way players are taught at the collegiate level, which makes sense with more than half of the offensive players on the current roster in their first or second season.

In a recent national radio interview, Jackson estimated he would throw “probably 30 passes a game,” a number he didn’t reach once in his eight starts as a rookie. The amount of time devoted to the passing game during training camp seems to support that prediction, but effectively practicing the running game can also be difficult in the absence of to-the-ground contact, probably making it unwise to draw strong conclusions from practice structure.

Adding speed was a clear priority in the draft with the selections of wide receivers Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin and running back Justice Hill, but the most substantial free-agent acquisition on offense was two-time Pro Bowl running back Mark Ingram to pair with Gus Edwards, who averaged 5.2 yards per carry as a rookie last season.

Carrying the ball just four times in the preseason, Ingram said those exhibition games offered only “a little gist” of what the Ravens will show. Jackson attempted only 16 passes and ran the ball just twice, not counting his spectacular 18-yard touchdown against Green Bay that was negated by a penalty. The preseason offense was vanilla and basic like most teams around the league.

Yes, much mystery remains — even for the Ravens.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen on Sunday,” Harbaugh said. “We don’t know how certain things are going to look or how guys are going to respond. We might have confidence. Whatever happens, we’ll deal with it. But that’s the beauty of it. That’s what’s exciting. That’s the drama.

“We’re going to go out there and find out a lot on the first Sunday.”

Of course, all eyes will be on Jackson, who looked in command of the offense and showed more consistency as a passer throughout the summer. The Ravens are optimistic the improved footwork and mechanics — and subsequent tighter spirals and better accuracy — he displayed during training camp will carry over to the regular season, but it remains to be seen whether his progression is more a giant leap or a modest step forward when the bright lights come on. After all, there’s a lot of previous muscle memory to overcome in the highly competitive environment of games that count.

Baltimore would be wise to continue to play to Jackson’s passing strength over the middle of the field while picking spots to test secondaries outside the numbers, the area where the young passer still isn’t as proficient. That’s why second-year tight end Mark Andrews is the popular pick to have a breakout season after he and Jackson consistently made plays over the middle in summer practices and showed a promising rapport last season.

As a rookie, Jackson was at his best on first down, completing just under 68 percent of his passes, averaging 9.0 yards per attempt, and posting a 100.6 passer rating on 56 throws. The football analytics world implores teams to pass more on first down and to be more aggressive on first and second downs to not just set up manageable third-down situations but to avoid them altogether. Those numbers alone lead you to believe the Ravens will be more aggressive passing on first downs this season.

Still, there are questions and concerns that can’t be overlooked, ranging from Jackson’s league-high 15 fumbles last season to a still-uncertain left guard situation that contributed to Baltimore’s demise in the playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. Three of the six wide receivers on the current roster have never caught an NFL pass and only Willie Snead has registered more than 45 receptions in a season, leaving a very low floor to go along with an intriguing ceiling at the position.

The Ravens must find a way to improve inside the red zone, an area in which the offense really struggled with Jackson at the helm. They scored touchdowns on just 11 of 26 trips inside the 20 after Week 9 last year, a percentage that would’ve ranked 31st in the NFL over the full season. A top-ranked Ravens defense helped cover up that deficiency a year ago, but settling for too many field goals inside the red zone will cost you sooner than later.

No, there are no guarantees. This offense could be a revolution or an eventual flop, but you have to respect the Ravens’ willingness to zig while everyone else zags in today’s game. They’ve embraced having a mobile quarterback and have tried to build an offense to suit his unique strengths and account for his weaknesses. If nothing else, Jackson and this offense will be fun to watch while continuing to give opposing defenses headaches with an unconventional brand of football.

Just how different it looks remains anyone’s guess, but Jackson is focused on the end result, which worked out pretty well for the Ravens during his rookie season.

“I’m just looking to win. That’s the goal: win games,” Jackson said. “Win every game you’re in, and it starts with Miami. That’s the goal. I don’t really care what the critics say. They’re going to always be there.”

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marquisebrown

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Ravens seeing “different gear” from Marquise Brown in recent practices

Posted on 18 August 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — One of the biggest story lines for the Ravens’ trip to Philadelphia to practice against the Eagles ahead of the third preseason game will be the status of wide receiver Marquise Brown.

Head coach John Harbaugh said the 2019 first-round pick practiced fully Saturday and would “hopefully … be good” to practice fully against the Eagles this week, which could pave the way for his preseason debut Thursday in what’s expected to be the final exhibition action for quarterback Lamar Jackson and most other starters. The health of Brown’s surgically-repaired left foot remains paramount, of course, but the speedy rookie building an on-field rapport with his starting quarterback is becoming a greater priority with the season opener in Miami just three weeks away.

Brown began taking part in full-team drills Aug. 10 after being brought along very slowly over the first 2 1/2 weeks of training camp.

“We’re giving him more every day. I think the plan was the right plan,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “This past week, we really saw a different gear from him, and that’s exciting. Now, we have to build some chemistry with him and Lamar.

“His style is a little different. He can kick that gear in. You better put some mustard on that ball.

Slot cornerback Tavon Young continues to weigh his options for a disc issue in his neck that could keep him out for the entire season, but defensive coordinator Wink Martindale has no shortage of potential replacements at the nickel position, even if they don’t provide the same upside or versatility. Cyrus Jones has started at the position in each of the first two preseason games to mixed reviews, but it appears unlikely he’ll hold the job exclusively at this point.

Every game situation could bring a different defensive player to the slot, which is the benefit of having depth in the secondary.

“Cyrus is the No. 1 nickel right now, but we’ll just wait and see what happens when we game-plan it,” Martindale said. “Brandon Carr has been in there. ‘Double A’ (Anthony Averett) has been in there. We can put different guys in there, and it’s matchup — what we think is the best. We put Chuck [Clark] and DeShon [Elliott] in there. It’s just a matchup thing.”

In addition to Young, 13 other players were absent from Sunday’s practice with cornerback Marlon Humphrey, wide receiver Miles Boykin, and outside linebackers Pernell McPhee and Shane Ray being new absences. Others continuing to be sidelined included running backs Gus Edwards and Kenneth Dixon (knee), wide receiver Seth Roberts, offensive lineman Marshal Yanda (foot), Randin Crecelilus, and Greg Senat, cornerback Iman Marshall (thigh), and inside linebackers Chris Board (concussion) and Nicholas Grigsby.

Inside linebackers Patrick Onwuasor and Kenny Young returned to practice after sitting out Saturday’s session.

The Ravens traveled to Philadelphia Sunday evening ahead of joint practices Monday and Tuesday. The Eagles’ 4-3 base defense and widely-aligned edge rushers should provide a valuable test for Jackson and a young offense this week.

“They get out there in those wide nines, and they’re coming off the edge. They bring it. They’re a real penetrating, run-to-the-ball defense,” Roman said. “It’s just a different style, and to be able to practice against those different nuances that you’re going to see throughout the season [is beneficial].

“It’s a great advantage for the guys to [have played against] more of a 3-4 structure [against Green Bay] last week, more of an eight-man front, 4-3 [against Jacksonville] the week before, and now they get to play against that 4-3 stack with those wide nines.”

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jackson1

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 29-0 preseason win over Jacksonville

Posted on 09 August 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens blowing out Jacksonville in a 29-0 win to begin the preseason, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Lamar Jackson was solid operating in the kind of conservative offense you’d expect in the first exhibition game. His best pass was a back-hip 18-yard completion to Chris Moore after the timing of Nick Boyle’s out route was out of whack. Jackson’s showing reinforced what we’ve watched in camp.

2. The 30-yard bootleg completion to a wide-open Moore is the kind of big play offensive coordinator Greg Roman hopes to generate with motion, play fakes, and Jackson’s mobility. The young quarterback simply needs to deliver a catchable ball in those instances, which he did perfectly there.

3. The ground game struggled to get going beyond an isolated run or two, but Jackson acknowledged the game plan was “not close at all” to what we’ll see in September. He then smiled and said, “It’s going to be fun to watch though.” Revolutionary or not, it’ll be very interesting.

4. I couldn’t help but ponder how many members of the second-team Ravens secondary would play meaningful roles for other NFL teams. Anthony Averett had some hiccups Thursday, but the depth in the defensive backfield on this roster is remarkable.

5. Miles Boykin had two drops and is still developing, but it’s clear how much both Jackson and Trace McSorley like throwing to him. His final three catches to end the half — the last being a pretty McSorley touchdown pass negated by a hold — flashed the go-to potential he could have.

6. It was good seeing Tim Williams and Tyus Bowser apply some pressure and collect a half-sack apiece, but both standing their ground on the edge for Chris Wormley’s third-and-1 stuff early in the second quarter was another good sign. They’re clearly ahead of Shane Ray at this point.

7. There wasn’t much running room for Justice Hill, but his 14-yard catch-and-run illustrated the need for the Ravens to find ways to get the rookie the ball in open space. He’ll definitely make defenders miss.

8. On just 14 defensive snaps, Patrick Ricard had two sacks, batted down a pass, and recorded another stuff at the line of scrimmage. That’s what you call making the most of opportunities when battling for a roster spot. He also played seven offensive snaps.

9. We didn’t see rookie third-round pick Jaylon Ferguson until the second half, but he was very active late in the third quarter, registering a tackle for a loss and a quarterback hit. No, the competition wasn’t exactly stiff, but that should serve as a confidence boost as he continues learning.

10. The numbers say it all for Kaare Vedvik, who connected on all four field goals — one from 55 yards — and recorded two punts for 58 and 53 yards. After what he experienced last year, you have to feel good for him. He’ll be kicking somewhere in the NFL this season.

11. Special teams coach Chris Horton couldn’t have liked his kickoff team giving up a 102-yard return for a touchdown that was nullified by a holding penalty, but Justin Tucker abstaining from trying to make a tackle definitely brought a sigh of relief. He’s been overzealous at times in past preseasons.

12. As John Harbaugh said, you “like to win” preseason games, but the Jaguars sat 32 players compared to Baltimore’s 14 and played only three listed starters from their depth chart (see below). The domination surely reflects the Ravens’ depth, but we’ll now turn the page to overreacting to next week.

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andrews

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2019 Ravens training camp preview: Tight ends

Posted on 15 July 2019 by Luke Jones

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

Cornerbacks
Running backs
Defensive line

We continue with the tight ends, an ascending young group with much upside playing for an offensive coordinator in Greg Roman who very much values the position. According to SharpFootballStats.com, the Ravens offense used two or more tight ends 40 percent of the time in 2018 — the league average was roughly 23 percent — a ratio that remained pretty consistent in the transition from Joe Flacco to Lamar Jackson at quarterback.

With Baltimore’s offense remaining centered around the run and still having question marks at wide receiver, the tight ends should continue to be featured prominently as both blockers and pass-catching threats. And as Football Outsiders noted defenses using at least five defensive backs nearly three-fourths of the time in 2018 to combat the ever popular three-receiver sets, there’s a potential advantage to be gained for passing offenses employing more tight ends with speed.

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

The Man — Mark Andrews
Skinny: The 2018 third-round pick didn’t look like he’d make much impact after a hamstring injury slowed him last summer, but Andrews was one of the NFL’s best rookie tight ends with 34 receptions for 552 yards and three touchdowns and emerged as Jackson’s deep threat down the stretch. According to Pro Football Focus, Andrews ranked fifth among tight ends at 2.01 yards per route run with only George Kittle, Travis Kelce, O.J. Howard, and Zach Ertz ahead of him. With Jackson’s passing strength being over the middle, Andrews may have more 2019 upside than any pass catcher on the roster.

Old Reliable — Nick Boyle
Skinny: The Ravens paid a steep price with a three-year, $18 million contract that included $10 million guaranteed to re-sign someone without a career touchdown or a single season of more than 213 receiving yards, but that speaks to how they value one of the league’s best blocking tight ends. Baltimore is expected to play its top three tight ends extensively, but Boyle remains atop the depth chart with the ability to essentially serve as a sixth offensive lineman — PFF graded him as the ninth-best run-blocking tight end last year — while showing just enough receiving ability to keep defenses honest.

Under Fire — Hayden Hurst
Skinny: Placing Hurst in this category is tough after a stress fracture in his foot cost him the end of the preseason and the first four games of his rookie year, but a first-round pick turning 26 in August simply must produce this fall or the “bust” label will be thrown out there very quickly. His 13 receptions for 163 yards and a touchdown in 12 games were underwhelming, but Hurst’s foot still wasn’t healed by the end of the season and required an extra month of rest. He added 20 pounds in the offseason to be able to play stronger, and he showed his potential last summer before being sidelined. He knows the pressure is on.

Up-and-Comer — Andrews
Skinny: The Ravens would love to include Hurst in this category as well, but Andrews receives the nod with the best season by a rookie tight end in franchise history.

Sleeper — Charles Scarff
Skinny: After four tight ends played at least 275 offensive snaps last year, Baltimore would probably like to keep a fourth at the position with the 6-foot-5, 249-pound rookie from Delaware looking the part as a blocking option to replace Maxx Williams. However, Hurst and Andrews figure to play more snaps than they did as rookies and the roster crunch at other positions may lead the Ravens to simply use an offensive lineman or fullback-defensive tackle Patrick Ricard as an extra blocking tight end if necessary.

The Rest — Cole Herdman
Skinny: The 6-foot-4, 238-pound rookie free agent totaled more than 1,000 receiving yards and eight touchdowns in his career at Purdue, but he wouldn’t figure to have a path to a 53-man roster spot without injuries at the position or really surprising as a blocker.

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edwards

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2019 Ravens training camp preview: Running backs

Posted on 10 July 2019 by Luke Jones

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

July 9 — Cornerbacks

We continue at running back, a position that already appeared to be in good shape as the Ravens ran the ball better than any team in the NFL over the final seven weeks of the 2018 season. First-year general manager Eric DeCosta didn’t rest on those laurels, however, as Baltimore signed a two-time Pro Bowl selection to a three-year, $15 million contract in March and drafted a speedy running back in the fourth round.

Any running back carrying the ball — not to mention the offensive line — will continue to benefit from the threat of Lamar Jackson, the most explosive rushing quarterback in the NFL. It’s no secret the running game took off when Jackson replaced an injured Joe Flacco in Week 11, and that doesn’t figure to change with new coordinator Greg Roman’s past offensive systems in San Francisco and Buffalo being built around an explosive ground attack.

Offenses are all about the passing game today, so the rush-minded Ravens are certainly going against the grain with many critics skeptical about the offense’s sustainability. But they’re doing it with a unique athlete at the quarterback position and a diverse collection of running backs hoping to create matchup problems for opposing defenses otherwise built to stop the pass in the modern game.

Below is a look at several running backs who stand out for various reasons:

The Man — Mark Ingram
Skinny: Taking nothing away from Gus Edwards and his 5.2 yards per carry average last year, the Ravens didn’t sign the former New Orleans Saint to that deal to play second fiddle to anyone. That’s not to say Ingram will carry the ball 300 times or be a lock to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark with other capable runners on the roster, but the 30-year-old is an underrated receiver and averaged a career-best 3.2 yards after contact per attempt in the shadow of Alvin Kamara last season. Baltimore is expecting big things.

Old Reliable — Ingram
Skinny: Edwards’ inside rushing style should still provide a high floor with the threat of Jackson keeping the ball at the mesh point and taking off on the edge, but Ingram has more than four times as many career rushing yards (6,007) as the rest of the current running back group combined. His reputation as a strong leader in the New Orleans locker room was another selling point after the Ravens watched so many key veterans depart in the offseason.

Under Fire — Kenneth Dixon
Skinny: Dixon reminded everyone of his ability by averaging 5.6 yards per carry in six games last season, but he has played in only 19 of a possible 49 games in his career, has served two drug suspensions, and is entering the final year of his rookie deal. If that weren’t enough, the offseason additions at the position made it clear the Ravens aren’t depending on him to be a big factor. This summer will be crucial for Dixon to force his way into a major role or put himself in position for a better opportunity elsewhere.

Up-and-Comer — Justice Hill
Skinny: It’s difficult to predict just how involved Hill will be as a rookie, but the Oklahoma State product recorded the fastest 40-yard dash time among running backs at the NFL combine and could serve as a change-of-pace back to complement the more physical styles of Ingram and Edwards. Listed at 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds, Hill doesn’t have the size to project as a clear-cut every-down back, but he could be an explosive weapon for the Ravens offense, especially if he develops as a receiver out of the backfield.

Sleeper — De’Lance Turner
Skinny: The undrafted free agent from Alcorn State was active for just four games as a rookie before suffering a hamstring injury, but the Ravens promoted him over Edwards to the active roster last September, a sign of what they thought of him before the latter’s surprising late-season emergence. Depending on what happens with Dixon, Turner could push his way onto the roster as a fourth running back, especially if he shows the home-run ability he flashed last preseason on a 65-yard touchdown run.

The Rest — Gus Edwards, Tyler Ervin, Christopher Ezeala
Skinny: Dismissing Edwards would be a mistake as he appeared to be in great shape this spring and should have no shortage of motivation. It’s worth noting the Ravens have had a different leading rusher four straight seasons and the previous three all moved on by the end of the following year, showing how fleeting success can be for running backs. … Ervin, a 2016 fourth-round pick from San Jose State, had some ball-security concerns in three seasons with Houston, but his experience returning punts and kickoffs will help in his uphill battle for a roster spot.

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marquisebrown

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Ravens still waiting on first-round pick to make practice debut

Posted on 12 June 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens defense was always going to win the battle this spring.

Not only has the Baltimore offense been completely revamped under coordinator Greg Roman, but a run-first system isn’t going to operate with full effect in non-contact practices. As you’d expect, a passing attack with a quarterback entering his first full year as a starter and veteran wide receivers with limited ceilings hasn’t produced many big plays against arguably the best and deepest secondary in the NFL.

But the Ravens — and their fans — must maintain the proper perspective knowing some intriguing upside is on the way in addition to quarterback Lamar Jackson and the rest of the offense simply increasing their comfort level in the new system. General manager Eric DeCosta selected two wide receivers with his first three picks of April’s draft to address the very concern observers have witnessed this spring.

Third-round rookie Miles Boykin missed a large portion of organized team activities with a hamstring injury and is still taking limited reps during this week’s minicamp, but first-round pick Marquise Brown has yet to make his practice debut for the Ravens. The speedy 5-foot-9, 170-pound receiver has increased his activity level this week by doing agility work on a side field, catching passes from the Jugs machine, and even taking a couple reps in an individual position drill Wednesday, but the real show won’t begin until the start of training camp in late July. Brown was selected with the 25th overall pick to make an immediate play-making impact, but the Ravens knew they’d have to be patient after the Oklahoma standout underwent Lisfranc surgery on his foot in January.

“He gets a little extra meeting time because he doesn’t get to do the stuff on the field that some of the guys get to do,” wide receivers coach David Culley said. “He spends a little bit of extra time going over those kinds of things. For the most part, he gets extra film work in, just watching everything in practice. Unfortunately for him, he doesn’t get to see himself to be able to correct things.”

Taking nothing away from complementary veteran wide receivers such as Willie Snead, Seth Roberts, and Chris Moore who will receive their share of opportunities, the Ravens are counting on Brown to be a difference maker, something they’ve rarely had at the wide receiver position over their history. The combination of speed and athleticism with which Brown consistently burned Big 12 defenses is exactly what Jackson needs to help fulfill his potential as a franchise quarterback.

The wait is almost over to see Brown in action, but he’ll have plenty of catching up to do after missing valuable spring reps.

“When I think about what I saw when we drafted him from Oklahoma, I get really excited about it,” Culley said. “Hopefully, he can do some of those same things that he did. He was a big-play guy for them, and one of the reasons why we got him where we got him was because of his big-play ability. We’re looking forward to him bringing that to us.”

In addition to Brown, defensive tackle Michael Pierce (conditioning), guard Alex Lewis (shoulder), cornerback and return specialist Cyrus Jones (illness), and guard Patrick Mekari did not participate in Wednesday’s minicamp practice. Safety Tony Jefferson increased his activity level in only his second practice since having ankle surgery in January.

Elliott shines again

Second-year safety DeShon Elliott continues to be a surprising standout performer this spring as he snatched another interception during Thursday’s practice, victimizing backup quarterback Robert Griffin III during a 7-on-7 period.

The 2018 sixth-round pick from Texas showed physicality in his first training camp before being lost for the season with a broken forearm last August, but his range in pass coverage has turned plenty of heads with a diving interception last week being the highlight play of the spring. At 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, Elliott has the size to be used in different capacities even if he’s stuck behind six-time Pro Bowl selection Earl Thomas and established veteran Tony Jefferson on the depth chart.

“He’s just picked up where he left off right before he got hurt, and it’s just going to be another fun piece,” defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said. “We play a bunch of different personnel and everything else. I know we have two really good safeties right now, but we’ll find spots for the good football players. Obviously, specials teams play a big part in that.”

Elliott’s development could impact snaps for reserve safeties Anthony Levine and Chuck Clark, who both saw plenty of action in sub packages last season.

Rough day for quarterbacks

Even with some inconsistency and the overall shortage of big plays in the passing game, Jackson had done a commendable job avoiding turnovers this spring with only one interception over the first four practices open to media, but that changed Wednesday.

The 22-year-old quarterback was picked off by reserve defensive back Bennett Jackson in a 7-on-7 period and was later intercepted twice by rookie cornerback Terrell Bonds in the red zone, an area of the field in which the offense has struggled. Griffin also threw two interceptions during the morning practice.

Jackson also threw a touchdown to tight end Mark Andrews as the two continue to build on the encouraging chemistry they showed down the stretch last season.

“I’m not looking to win the practices. I’m looking to get ready for the training camp and get ready for the season,” Roman said. “Every opportunity, whether a good result or a bad result, on a play this time of year is a great thing because it gives us an opportunity to grow from it.”

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Five Ravens questions for start of organized team activities

Posted on 20 May 2019 by Luke Jones

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

1. How will Lamar Jackson look passing the ball?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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DeCosta, Ravens take swings to get up to speed in today’s NFL

Posted on 29 April 2019 by Luke Jones

First-year general manager Eric DeCosta followed through after stating more than once over the last calendar year that the Ravens needed to take more swings at the wide receiver position in the NFL draft.

Having lost five notable members of his top-ranked defense this offseason, DeCosta could have made the safe play by loading up on defensive players early while waiting until Day 3 to pluck a wide receiver or two off the board. It was the playbook often used by predecessor Ozzie Newsome — winner of two Super Bowls, mind you — to an almost maddening degree in recent years and for much of the history of the franchise.

DeCosta was quick to state it wasn’t deliberate, but the Ravens drafted two wide receivers — Oklahoma’s Marquise Brown and Notre Dame’s Miles Boykin — in the first three rounds, equaling the total selected in the opening three rounds by Newsome in the previous 11 drafts combined. Even if it was “just kind of how the board fell” as DeCosta put it, the Ravens were the first team to draft a wide receiver in the first round — one regarded as the fastest in the draft — and then traded up nine spots in the third round to take a 6-foot-4, 220-pound wideout who ran a surprising 4.42-second 40-yard dash.

The Ravens weren’t just drafting any wide receivers to aid in second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson’s development, but there was a specific trait in mind, which became even more evident when DeCosta selected Oklahoma State running back Justice Hill with his first pick on Saturday.

“One of the main common denominators is speed. It makes it tough on a defense,” said DeCosta, citing the best opposing offenses he’s watched from the press box in recent seasons. “As good as our defense has been, it’s a challenge for a team to face speed when you have multiple guys on the field at the same time who can run and make explosive plays. It’s challenging. We got a chance to see what Lamar can do this past year, and I think our collective vision for the offense is to add more guys like that to make it really challenging on the defense.”

These picks do carry substantial risk as the history of wide receivers taken with the final 10 picks of the first round in recent years hasn’t been pretty. Brown’s potential speaks for itself if you’ve watched any of his video game-like highlight videos, but we’re still talking about a 5-foot-9, 170-pound receiver currently recovering from a Lisfranc injury. Veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith has acknowledged that same injury still giving him problems years later, but the difference is how much more reliant an undersized receiver like Brown will be on that unique speed.

Boykin could carry more upside than any wide receiver the Ravens have ever drafted — admittedly a low bar — but he registered only 18 receptions before his senior season at Notre Dame, which is often a predictor of underwhelming production at the next level. Still, his physical traits and good catch rate last year were too enticing for the Ravens to overlook.

History says Brown and Boykin are more likely to both be busts than both be draft successes, but having too great a risk-averse mindset leaves one standing on the sideline wondering why the Ravens never get better at the position. Without a top-five pick — and even that isn’t always foolproof — you have to roll the dice from time to time to find dynamic play-making ability, especially if you want to maximize your investment in a first-round quarterback. And that needed to be a priority in this draft.

“Those two guys have [play-making ability] many times over,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “You have a big, fast guy (Boykin), who’s a powerful guy, who can catch and get upfield with the ball with his stride length and his stiff arm, and he goes up and makes catches. He’s a developing player. He’s kind of a younger, developing player. He’s only really had one year in the offense.

“Then, you have the smaller, faster guy (Brown) with quick feet that can make people miss in a short area, in a tight area. He can catch and run in crossing routes. But the bottom line is, these are two really fast guys that make plays, and that’s what we were looking for.”

Offensive coordinator Greg Roman couldn’t have been happier this weekend as he now has some speedy toys to use on the perimeter to complement his dynamic running game and collection of tight ends to make plays over the middle. In addition to what Brown and Boykin bring, Hill posted the fastest 40 time of all running backs at this year’s scouting combine, making him an intriguing change-of-pace option to starter Mark Ingram and the physical Gus Edwards in the backfield.

No, the draft didn’t bring some seismic shift in philosophy as the offense’s foundation will continue to be the ground game, but DeCosta’s early picks made clear the Ravens’ intentions to expand their approach beyond simply running the ball 50 times per game and minimizing Jackson’s passing opportunities. Baltimore addressed its need to get faster, something that had become more apparent watching some of the best offenses in the league in recent years.

There’s no guarantee this will all work to perfection as so much will hinge on Jackson’s development as a passer, but credit DeCosta and the Ravens for taking some risks to improve his chances of succeeding. If nothing else, it should be fun watching opponents try to combat an unconventional offensive attack.

“The idea of adding speed with Lamar is just an exciting thing to think about teams having to defend,” director of college scouting Joe Hortiz said. “I know Greg is excited about it and John is excited about it. It’s a chance to really put fear into opposing defenses. I think it really gets you excited.”

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