Tag Archive | "Greg Roman"

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Twelve Ravens thoughts from Greg Roman’s press conference

Posted on 19 February 2019 by Luke Jones

With Greg Roman meeting with the media for the first time since his promotion to offensive coordinator, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The theme from Tuesday’s press conference was the “reimagining” of the Ravens offense “from the ground up” with Roman even comparing the process to a brand new coaching staff joining a team. That seems telling after so many questioned the sustainability of the post-bye offensive system last year.

2. Roman went out of his way to mention how the staff was incorporating college elements, ranging from how modern players learn offensive systems to formations and even the calling of plays at that level. That’s interesting for a staff that doesn’t have a ton of recent college coaching experience.

3. Beyond improving his ball security, the greatest offseason focus for Lamar Jackson will be refining his fundamentals and mechanics as a passer, according to Roman. The coordinator opined that certain elements may not have been emphasized very much during his college career.

4. Asked what he likes about Jackson as a passer, Roman praised his field vision and compared it to that of Steve McNair, whom he worked with in his first stint with the Ravens from 2006-07. He said that kind of feel can’t be coached and gives Jackson a higher ceiling.

5. Like John Harbaugh last month, Roman didn’t disclose many details about Jackson’s offseason football plans, but he noted how this is essentially his first true offseason after he went through the pre-draft process last year. It’s a critical one for Jackson to make that fundamental jump.

6. When discussing his play-calling, Roman mentioned not wanting to leave “popcorn on the ground” for the opposing defense to be able to call out their plays. I don’t believe that was a dig at Marty Mornhinweg, but I couldn’t help but think about the playoff loss when he said it.

7. Speaking of the popcorn comment, Roman compared adjusting Jackson’s speed to a pitcher striking you out in the first couple at-bats and said the rebuilding of the offense was like kneading dough and putting together IKEA furniture. He had no shortage of interesting analogies, which I appreciated.

8. To no surprise, Roman mentioned “a strong, powerful” offensive line as the most important element in building an offense around Jackson. You’d have to think upgrading at left guard or center — ideally, both — remains a priority.

9. On the same day Hayden Hurst indicated he finally had the screw removed from his foot that stemmed from his August surgery for a stress fracture, Roman expressed excitement about both him and fellow tight end Mark Andrews and how creative he wants to be with their usage.

10. Echoing Eric DeCosta from last month, Roman mentioned wanting wide receivers with strong blocking ability and a “tough guy” element. That’ll be an emphasis in the draft and free agency, but I feel the need to express hope that they’ll find one or two also possessing the position’s traditional traits.

11. For those dreaming of a Le’Veon Bell signing, Roman preferring a “stable” of running backs and saying a receiving-minded back isn’t a top priority would probably make it unwise to hold your breath for the pursuit of the Pittsburgh Steeler free agent. Not that I expected it anyway.

12. I’m unsure how this is going to go with a “reimagined” offense driven by the run in an NFL leaning so heavily on the pass, but I respect trying to go against the grain for a competitive advantage. How big a passing jump Jackson makes remains the biggest key, however.

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How did Ravens tight ends stack up to rest of NFL in 2018?

Posted on 11 February 2019 by Luke Jones

The Ravens returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2014, but where did their players stack up across the NFL in 2018?

Whether it’s discussing the Pro Bowl or determining postseason awards, media and fans spend much time debating where players rank at each position, but few watch every player on every team extensively enough to form any type of an authoritative opinion.

Truthfully, how many times did you watch the offensive line of the Detroit Lions this season? What about the Oakland Raiders linebackers or the San Francisco 49ers cornerbacks?

That’s why I appreciate the grading efforts of Pro Football Focus while acknowledging these rankings shouldn’t be viewed as infallible or the gospel of evaluation. I can respect the exhaustive effort to grade players across the league when most of us watch only one team or one division on any kind of a consistent basis.

Below is a look at where Ravens tight ends ranked at their positions followed by the positional outlook going into 2019:

Offensive linemen
Linebackers

Nick Boyle
2018 offensive snap count (including postseason): 651
PFF ranking: 23rd among tight ends
Skinny: The 6-foot-4, 270-pound Delaware product is limited as a pass catcher, but his blocking ability has been vital to Greg Roman’s blocking schemes over the last two seasons. His strengths are likely to be valued more by the Ravens than more pass-happy teams, making the free agent a good bet to return.

Mark Andrews
2018 offensive snap count (including postseason): 414
PFF ranking: 13th among tight ends
Skinny: Despite dealing with nagging injuries over the summer, Andrews quickly became Baltimore’s best receiving tight end and finished with 552 receiving yards, a team record for a rookie tight end. His ability to go over the middle and gain yards after the catch makes him a vital weapon for Lamar Jackson.

Maxx Williams
2018 offensive snap count (including postseason): 374
PFF ranking: 16th among tight ends
Skinny: Williams never lived up to the potential the Ravens envisioned when they moved up to take him in the second round of the 2015 draft, but he carved out a role with his strong blocking over the last two years. He could be the odd man out, however, as he hits the free-agent market at the same time as Boyle.

Hayden Hurst
2018 offensive snap count (including postseason): 275
PFF ranking: 33rd among tight ends
Skinny: A foot injury derailed the beginning of the first-round pick’s rookie season, but he began to look more comfortable down the stretch, posting a season-best 43 receiving yards in Week 17 over Cleveland. Hurst will be 26 in August and has much to prove after an underwhelming 2018 campaign.

2019 positional outlook

The emergence of Andrews makes this group look better than it has in quite some time as the Oklahoma product was already looking the part of an above-average tight end with big-play ability. If Hurst can become the player the front office envisioned when he was selected last April, the Ravens will quickly have one of the NFL’s better duos at this position. Re-signing Boyle should be a priority with the continuing emphasis on the running game, but Andrews and Hurst improving as blockers would go a long way in making the offense more dynamic and unpredictable. It wouldn’t be surprising to see general manager Eric DeCosta add another blocking-minded tight end to the mix with a Day 3 draft pick in April since both Boyle and Williams are scheduled to hit the open market.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts from Harbaugh press conference

Posted on 25 January 2019 by Luke Jones

With John Harbaugh meeting with the media on Friday after signing his new four-year contract, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Harbaugh confirmed his role hasn’t changed in terms of roster input, noting how the organization’s brass works together and has never operated with a silo mentality. The thought of Steve Bisciotti suddenly moving the goalposts as Eric DeCosta finally gets his chance as general manager never made much sense.

2. Lamar Jackson plans to throw with his receivers, but Harbaugh avoided specifics when asked if Jackson planned to work with a quarterback guru or coach before the offseason program. He does expect Jackson to work hard and “come back a better quarterback, skill-wise, than he was when he left.”

3. The possibility remains of adding an outside assistant to specialize in the passing game, but Harbaugh made clear not to shortchange Greg Roman’s knowledge in that area. One difference with his time as San Francisco’s coordinator, however, was the presence of Jim Harbaugh, who spent 15 years as an NFL quarterback.

4. Asked which position groups he’d like to improve, Harbaugh said what the Ravens “don’t want to do is take any steps back” and have to play catch-up. With tough roster decisions on the defensive side, however, they may need to give a little there to grow this offense meaningfully.

5. Any discussion about Marshal Yanda’s future should only relate to the possibility of him retiring. His $7 million salary and $10.125 million cap figure for 2019 remain more than reasonable for someone who’s still one of the best guards in football going into his 13th season.

6. Harbaugh didn’t want to entertain the possibility of C.J. Mosley departing while noting “there are limitations with the money.” Both sides are interested in a long-term deal, but at what cost? Deals for Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner are four years old, so Mosley will — and should — be aiming higher.

7. It’s only logical that Baltimore would want a backup quarterback with a similar skill set to Jackson with Harbaugh calling Robert Griffin III “a great option” and also alluding to the media speculation about Tyrod Taylor, whose current contract voids a few days after the Super Bowl.

8. Harbaugh said he expects Eric Weddle to return, but the safety backpedaling this week from his previous comments about not playing for any other team but the Ravens in 2019 leads you to believe his $6.5 million salary and $9.25 million cap figure are possible sticking points for DeCosta.

9. I can’t imagine Za’Darius Smith was thrilled about his sports hernia surgery coming to light, but that shouldn’t impact his free-agent market anyway. Tavon Young (sports hernia) and Tony Jefferson (ankle) also had minor procedures. Alex Lewis undergoing another shoulder surgery isn’t encouraging, however.

10. Jimmy Smith wasn’t mentioned during Friday’s press conference, but Harbaugh has long been a strong advocate for the veteran cornerback. Even so, he’ll be 31 in July and is scheduled to make $9.5 million with a $15.85 million cap figure. That’s not tenable with the many other areas to address.

11. The playoff loss wasn’t a big topic of conversation after the long delay with Harbaugh’s season-ending press conference, but the coach reiterated the Ravens were “outplayed” and “outcoached” before vowing next year’s offense will be “very diverse” and built “from the ground up.” It’ll definitely be interesting.

12. Asked about Joe Flacco’s value, Harbaugh said his former quarterback just needs some weapons and pass protection to be “one of the best quarterbacks in the league.” Harbaugh was being complimentary and hasn’t been the general manager, of course, but the irony of those words couldn’t have been thicker.

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Harbaugh, Ravens reportedly nearing contract extension

Posted on 19 January 2019 by Luke Jones

More than four weeks after announcing John Harbaugh would return in 2019, the Ravens are on the verge of reaching a contract extension with their longtime head coach.

According to ESPN’s Chris Mortensen, the sides have an agreement in principle on a deal that will keep Harbaugh in Baltimore beyond the 2019 season. The deal has yet to be finalized, but the 56-year-old coach made his preference to stay clear after the Ravens’ season-ending loss to the Los Angeles Chargers in the wild-card round, their first playoff appearance since 2014. The organization issued a statement on Dec. 21 announcing Harbaugh would remain the head coach and the sides were working on an extension for his existing contract set to expire in 2019.

Owner Steve Bisciotti admitted last February he considered replacing Harbaugh after the Ravens missed the playoffs for a third straight season, their longest postseason drought since 1996-99.

“I have every expectation, every plan to be here as long as they want me here, and I believe I’ll be here,” Harbaugh said on Jan. 6. “I think that’s been made clear by them to me over the last few weeks. Like I said a couple weeks ago or last week, I love everybody in the organization; they’re great people. I expect to go forward with that as long as that’s what they want to do. I do believe that’s what they want to do.”

A Harbaugh extension is a sign of stability for an organization that’s undergone notable change over the last calendar year. In addition to Lamar Jackson replacing former Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco as the starting quarterback in November, Eric DeCosta has officially succeeded Ozzie Newsome as the general manager and Greg Roman replaced Marty Mornhinweg as the offensive coordinator earlier this month. Last January, Wink Martindale became Baltimore’s defensive coordinator after Dean Pees stepped down.

Harbaugh’s future appeared in great doubt only 2 1/2 months ago when the Ravens limped into the bye week with a 4-5 record and an injured Flacco, but a 6-1 finish and a revamped run-heavy offense led to their first AFC North championship in six years. The NFL’s fourth-longest-tenured head coach will be entering his 12th season and has led the Ravens to seven playoff trips, three division titles, three AFC championship game appearances, and a Super Bowl championship. However, Baltimore has only one playoff victory since its win in Super Bowl XLVII.

Saturday marked the 11th anniversary of Harbaugh’s introductory press conference when he became the third head coach in franchise history.

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Ravens assistant Hammock to become Northern Illinois head coach

Posted on 18 January 2019 by Luke Jones

The Ravens are losing another member of their offensive coaching staff as running backs coach Thomas Hammock will become the head coach at Northern Illinois.

Hammock, 37, arrived in Baltimore in 2014 and guided four different backs — Justin Forsett, Terrance West, Alex Collins, and Gus Edwards — to lead the Ravens in rushing over the last five seasons. He returns to lead his alma mater where he rushed for 2,432 yards and 25 touchdowns from 1999-2002 and served as the running backs coach from 2005-06. Hammock also coached at Wisconsin and Minnesota before breaking into the NFL with the Ravens.

His departure comes a week after head coach John Harbaugh promoted assistant head coach and tight ends coach Greg Roman to offensive coordinator. That move prompted Marty Mornhinweg to leave the organization despite being asked to remain under a different job title.

With Hammock gone and Bobby Engram expected to become the tight ends coach, openings remain at the running backs and wide receivers coaching positions. It remains to be seen whether Harbaugh will hire another assistant to focus on the passing game, a role that had been earmarked for Mornhinweg after he was demoted from offensive coordinator.

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Ravens protect investment by shifting Roman to offensive coordinator

Posted on 11 January 2019 by Luke Jones

The Ravens don’t yet know what kind of passing game they’ll ultimately have with Lamar Jackson, but they immediately formed the NFL’s most dynamic rushing attack when the young quarterback became the starter in mid-November.

That element was too valuable to risk losing on the path of the 22-year-old’s development.

Head coach John Harbaugh recognized that truth in promoting assistant head coach and tight ends coach Greg Roman to offensive coordinator on Friday. Marty Mornhinweg will not remain on the Baltimore staff despite being offered a different job title, according to Harbaugh.

Reportedly drawing interest from other teams, Roman, 46, was the architect of a Baltimore ground game that gained nearly twice as many rushing yards over the final seven regular-season games as it did in the first nine contests with former starter Joe Flacco, whose Week 9 hip injury facilitated the change at quarterback and in philosophy. The offensive shakeup contributed to the Ravens winning six of their final seven games to win the AFC North and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

“Increasing Greg’s responsibilities will help us get where we’re going on offense,” Harbaugh said in a statement released by the Ravens. “His role with our offense has already been significant and substantial. His understanding of the run game we are building — which we saw some of in the second half of the season — and how it integrates with a consistent and big-play passing game is exciting.”

Down the stretch, Harbaugh repeatedly praised the work of the entire offensive coaching staff — Mornhinweg included — in pivoting at the bye week from a throw-happy offense that had averaged more than 640 passing attempts per season from 2015-17 to one that ran nearly twice as often as it passed, but the run-heavy schemes were the same ones employed by Roman in his previous stints as the offensive coordinator for San Francisco (2011-14) and Buffalo (2015-16), making it important not to lose him to another team. Debate remained over Mornhinweg being the right man to oversee Jackson’s development as a passer, but what was indisputable was the 2018 first-round pick’s fit in Roman’s rushing schemes as Baltimore averaged 5.1 yards per carry over the final seven regular-season games and the rookie rushed for 695 yards on 147 carries in his rookie season, a modern NFL record for attempts by a quarterback.

That made promoting Roman and risking losing Mornhinweg — which ultimately happened — the path of least resistance in maintaining some continuity while hoping to build on the 2018 success. Of course, that doesn’t change the need for the Ravens to find more offensive balance to better protect Jackson by decreasing his number of carries — and subsequent hits taken.

How the poor offensive showing in last Sunday’s playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers impacted Harbaugh’s thinking is unclear, but post-game comments from Chargers players suggesting they knew exactly what was coming didn’t reflect well on Mornhinweg or the rest of the offensive staff. The Ravens were held to just 90 yards on 23 carries with Jackson completing only three passes and posting a 2.8 passer rating through the first three quarters of his postseason debut.

It remains to be seen how Roman’s new role will impact Jackson’s development or whether the Ravens will seek additional help for the passing game with Mornhinweg’s departure. Friday’s press release made no mention of quarterbacks coach James Urban or any potential change in his job responsibilities.

In Roman’s five full seasons as a coordinator with the 49ers and Bills, his offenses annually finished in the bottom 10 in passing yards per game, but three of those units ranked in the top seven in yards per passing attempt, the kind of efficiency the Ravens would love to see in a more-developed Jackson. Over those years, Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick, and Tyrod Taylor all posted the highest single-season passer ratings of their respective careers.

Upon arriving in Baltimore as a senior offensive assistant and tight ends coach in 2017, Roman immediately made an impact in the running game as the Ravens improved from 28th in rushing yards in 2016 to 11th. It was a major reason why Harbaugh’s team was able to tread water in the first half of the season when Flacco was still feeling the effects of a back injury that sidelined him for the entire summer. That rushing success prompted the Ravens to re-sign Roman and promote him to the title of assistant head coach for the 2018 campaign.

Roman is a 21-year NFL coaching veteran who had a previous stint with the Ravens as an offensive line assistant under former head coach Brian Billick from 2006-07. He also worked for Carolina and Houston at the beginning of his coaching career before later being hired by Jim Harbaugh at Stanford and following him to the 49ers.

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Patience — and skepticism — warranted as Ravens’ fun 2018 ride comes to end

Posted on 08 January 2019 by Luke Jones

The 2018 Ravens were weird but fun, something that shouldn’t be forgotten in the aftermath of the ugly wild-card playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.

Winning its first AFC North championship in six years and returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2014, Baltimore completed one of the more memorable in-season turnarounds in team history. Faced with a three-game losing streak and a hip injury to longtime quarterback Joe Flacco at the bye week, head coach John Harbaugh and his coaching staff turned to rookie Lamar Jackson and zigged while the rest of the pass-happy NFL zagged with the Ravens rushing for over 1,600 yards in their final seven games, nearly twice as many as their total from the first nine weeks of the season. The coaches deserve much credit for remaking the offense on the fly, and that drastic change was embraced by players, including a group of wide receivers who were marginalized overnight.

However, that ride came to a screeching halt Sunday with the Chargers defense smothering the Ravens for the first 50 minutes of play, holding them to three points and 83 total yards through three quarters in their own stadium. It was obvious Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley figured out the unconventional Baltimore running game the second time around, but the Ravens were soundly beaten in their one-on-one matchups as well, especially on the offensive line. The offense was thoroughly outcoached and outplayed, and it was too late by the time the Ravens managed two late touchdowns against a sleepy Los Angeles defense to make the final score look respectable.

With an enjoyable season coming to an end, patience is warranted, but skepticism is fair in assessing the state of the Ravens moving forward. The first playoff appearance in four years typically signals brighter days ahead, but this season was as much a last hurrah for some key individuals as it was the start of a new chapter.

Change is already underway as longtime lieutenant Eric DeCosta becomes the general manager with Ozzie Newsome stepping aside after 23 years in charge of football operations. That should be as seamless a transition as you’ll find in this position with DeCosta having been with the Ravens since their inception, but that doesn’t guarantee success or the absence of some hiccups along the way.

The Ravens have publicly expressed their intentions of keeping Harbaugh, but rumors and speculation will persist until a contract extension becomes official. How his assistant coaches fit into that future also remains to be seen as Sunday wasn’t exactly a banner day for offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg.

We know Flacco is finished in Baltimore as Harbaugh eulogized the former Super Bowl MVP’s Ravens career minutes after Sunday’s loss, but he’s unlikely to be the only notable veteran player to depart. Retirement, free agency, or salary-cap decisions could lead to the exit of some combination of Marshal Yanda, Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley, Eric Weddle, Za’Darius Smith, Jimmy Smith, Brandon Carr, Michael Crabtree, John Brown, and Tony Jefferson. Much will depend on how dramatically DeCosta wants to reshape the roster and reset the salary cap in his first year calling the shots.

Regardless of other changes, Jackson’s development is obviously the biggest factor in determining the short-to-intermediate future and that will require some patience and perspective. The 22-year-old is a special talent who flashed much to like on his way to helping the Ravens win six of their last seven regular-season games, but significant questions about his ball security and passing ability cannot be overlooked because of the early team success. That was apparent Sunday as he fumbled three times and completed only three passes through three quarters until regrouping to throw two touchdowns in the final seven minutes to make the game interesting. His mental toughness to fight back in the closing minutes was admirable, but he looked in over his head for much of the day.

Jackson was hardly alone in the struggles as the offensive line was awful against the Chargers front, but it was a reminder that he has a long way to go. That’s OK, of course, as Flacco was far from stellar in his first few playoff games before becoming “January Joe” a few years later. Jackson’s first postseason performance really shouldn’t change anything as he was always going to need to make marked improvement, regardless of how far the Ravens advanced this January.

But what will the organization do to help him get there?

Assistant head coach Greg Roman deserves credit for implementing the same run-game schemes successfully used in his previous stops at San Francisco and Buffalo, but is Mornhinweg the right offensive coordinator for Jackson? It’s been much advertised that he and quarterbacks coach James Urban worked with a veteran Michael Vick in Philadelphia, but that was an eternity ago in NFL years. For what it’s worth, Mornhinweg’s arrival as the quarterbacks coach four years ago — with Marc Trestman as the offensive coordinator — coincided with an immediate statistical decline in Flacco after arguably his best season under Gary Kubiak in 2014.

Sunday was damning for Mornhinweg in terms of having no plan B as the Chargers seemingly knew what plays the Ravens were running in their second meeting in 15 days. However, Harbaugh has shown much faith in his offensive coordinator over these last few years, making it difficult to expect a change now as the head coach has newfound leverage with a division championship and playoff appearance.

The Ravens are likely to remain a run-first offense going forward, but more balance will be paramount. With his mobility, Jackson doesn’t need to become Peyton Manning to be very successful at this level, but his throwing mechanics, footwork, and ability to throw outside the numbers will be scrutinized even more next season. Before anything else, however, he needs to do a much better job protecting the football as he finished with 15 fumbles counting Sunday’s playoff game.

The offensive talent the Ravens add around Jackson will be just as important as his individual development. Contrary to the lazy narrative of the last six years being strictly about Flacco’s contract, the Ravens did a poor job building an offense around him. The organization used most of its early draft picks from 2013-17 on defense — with mixed results at best — and even gave out big contracts to defensive players at less valuable positions while the other side of the ball floundered with minimal resources. Flacco’s pending exit shouldn’t leave that truth forgotten.

The Ravens will have much more cap flexibility with a quarterback on a rookie contract for the next few years, but the defense will also be undergoing substantial change with several key veterans moving on sooner than later. In other words, it will be interesting to see if DeCosta and the organization evolve toward making offense the greater priority or whether Jackson will be asked to do less with more like his predecessor. Improving the interior offensive line and addressing the wide receiver position — again — will be just two of the priorities on the offensive side of the ball.

A new era has begun in Baltimore, one that warrants some patience with a new general manager, a number of potential veteran departures, and a talented 22-year-old quarterback. These are certainly interesting and exciting times at 1 Winning Drive.

But it’s fair to be skeptical as the Ravens hand the keys to Jackson, both for his own weaknesses and those of the organization in recent years.

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Ravens’ rematch with Chargers carries much intrigue with playoff stakes

Posted on 03 January 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens are entering unusual territory for Sunday’s wild-card tilt against the Los Angeles Chargers.

Not only will it be their first home playoff game in six years, but the opponent is a team Baltimore saw — and defeated — just two weeks ago. Teams play their divisional foes twice per season, of course, but you rarely see a return bout after just 15 days, making the second meeting between these AFC teams that much more interesting after the Ravens’ convincing 22-10 win in Carson, California on Dec. 22.

The chess match is on against a familiar opponent who is also 8-0 in games played outside Los Angeles.

“Are they going to game-plan us the same way that they did the first game, or are they going to completely change the game plan?” right guard Marshal Yanda said. “Are we going to change the game plan? You really don’t know exactly if they’re going to stick to the script or if they’re going to install a new game plan. You just have to look at their entire body of work, their entire 16-game season.”

The last time the Ravens played the same team twice in such a short period of time was in 2012 when they beat Pittsburgh at Heinz Field in Week 11 and fell to the Steelers at M&T Bank Stadium two weeks later. That same season, Denver clobbered John Harbaugh’s team in Baltimore in mid-December, but you may recall the underdog Ravens faring a little differently at Mile High four weeks later on the way to the second Super Bowl title in franchise history.

No better examples are needed to remind nothing is assured for Baltimore — even with home-field advantage — despite its convincing road victory over Philip Rivers and the Chargers in Week 16. We constantly try to jump to conclusions from what we see in this league in a given week and are frequently sent back to the drawing board, which is what makes the NFL so much fun. The truth is we’re dealing with small sample sizes and many variables in contrast to the other sports that play many more games in a season.

But that brings us to Lamar Jackson and a Ravens running game that’s taken the league by storm over the last two months. Opponents have tried their best to simulate Jackson in practices by using a mobile quarterback or even a speedy player at another position, but his speed and agility have no parallel at the position in today’s game. Teams can watch film and prepare as much as possible, but experiencing this ground attack for the first time is different as the Ravens have rushed for at least 194 yards in six of the last seven games and Jackson set a single-season record for rushing attempts (147) by a quarterback despite starting only seven games.

It’s similar to a hitter stepping to the plate against a pitcher with triple-digit heat, nasty breaking stuff, and an unorthodox delivery for the first time after poring over the scouting reports and watching video in preparation. But in the same way batters have the chance to adjust in subsequent plate appearances, the Chargers’ ninth-ranked run defense will now have the opportunity to provide a meaningful answer to the question we’ve been asking for weeks.

How sustainable is the Ravens’ high-volume running game as opposing defenses are further exposed to it and given more time to prepare?

At first glance, the Chargers surrendering 159 rushing yards and 4.5 yards per carry in Week 16 isn’t worthy of praise, but they fared better against Jackson’s legs and the NFL’s second-ranked rushing attack than any other post-bye opponent. After registering a robust 5.4 yards per carry in the first half, the Ravens managed just 21 yards on their first 10 carries of the second half, contributing to three straight three-and-outs that kept the struggling Chargers within striking distance until Tavon Young’s late fumble return for a touchdown. Jackson carried 13 times for just 39 yards on the night, easily his lowest rushing total since Joe Flacco was still the starting quarterback and the rookie was playing sparingly.

“We weren’t as efficient in the second half as we needed to be,” said tight end Mark Andrews, who caught a 68-yard touchdown in the third quarter of the Week 16 win. “That’s probably one of those things [where] they played a good game and we fell off a little bit.”

It’s not as though opposing defenses haven’t attempted to adjust during games by keeping a safety in the box more frequently, using “Bear” or heavy fronts, or even utilizing pre-snap movement with defensive linemen pinching inside like Cleveland did in the fourth quarter. But this will be the first time an opponent has been able to go back to the laboratory with a full week to prepare and adjust after facing the real thing.

A few teams have managed to slow Baltimore’s ground game — at least somewhat — as Kansas City gave up only 3.8 yards per carry after halftime compared to 6.1 yards per attempt in the first half. The Browns surrendered 4.5 yards per carry in the second half last Sunday after being gashed to the tune of an absurd 8.5 yards per carry over the first two quarters. But only the Chargers have managed to shut down the Baltimore run over the final 30 minutes as the Ravens defense was forced to win the game.

Los Angeles’ propensity for frequently using safeties like rookie sensation Derwin James in the box and more athletic linebackers matches up better with Jackson on the edges.

“We know his speed. I watched him in college as well. His speed is really good,” Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn said. “We know that you have to protect the perimeter with this guy. On the edge, one-on-one — he can win. He’s like a running back with the ball in his hands.”

Such a strategy of using lighter players in the box would seemingly leave the Chargers vulnerable against inside runs. That proved true in the first half as Gus Edwards ran for 60 yards on eight carries, but the 238-pound rookie managed just 11 yards on five carries in the second half before finally breaking off a late 21-yard gain when the game was already decided.

We’re still dealing with such a small sample size, mind you, but did the Chargers manage to finally crack the code? Will Ravens run-game guru Greg Roman cook up something new that Los Angeles coordinator Gus Bradley and his defense won’t be able to handle? Or does Jackson build on what he did through the air against the Chargers after throwing for a career-high 204 yards the first time around?

A return meeting this soon with such high stakes couldn’t be more fascinating.

“They’re skilled. They’re well-coached. They’re disciplined. They make it hard,” said offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg of the Chargers. “They’re really good on defense, and that’s the way I perceive this group that we’re playing. They’ll do a couple of things [differently] during the game — we’ll do a few things [too] — because of the last ball game.

“But every game is its own entity.”

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Ravens still want to win, but weighing possible outcomes no easy chore

Posted on 13 November 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens want to make the playoffs and still have a reasonable chance to do so despite losing four of their last five games before their bye week.

Football Outsiders currently has their playoff chances at 32.7 percent while ESPN’s Power Football Index estimates their odds at 36.1 percent with Tennessee being the only No. 6 seed hopeful with better playoff odds (41.9 percent and 43 percent, respectively) in the AFC. The Ravens aren’t the favorites and must show improvement in multiple areas, but making it isn’t just a pipe dream, especially when sizing up the rest of the wild-card competition.

The hip injury to Joe Flacco has sparked much outside conversation about first-round pick Lamar Jackson and whether he might be the better option even if the former is healthy down the stretch, but head coach John Harbaugh expressed his stance on Monday as the Ravens returned to work to begin preparations for the Cincinnati Bengals. And it sounds as though he still believes Flacco — at least a healthy version of him — gives Baltimore its best chance to win now.

“If Joe can play, he’ll play,” Harbaugh said. “He’s rehabbing to play. Joe does not have to practice to play. He’s practiced the whole season; he’s practiced for 11 years. But he might practice, so we’ll just have to see how it goes. It’s up in the air; we’re not worried about it. We’re blessed with a good quarterback room, and that’s a good thing, that’s a positive thing.”

But let’s put Flacco’s Week 11 status and the current quarterback debate aside, at least until we have more information in the next few days.

What’s really best for the Ravens over the remainder of the 2018 season and beyond?

Let’s remove the long shot of Flacco suddenly recapturing his 2012 mojo and leading the Ravens to a Super Bowl — or even an AFC championship game appearance — from consideration. We’ll also throw out the possibility of Jackson taking over and being an instant superstar because history suggests that’s an unreasonable expectation. Either of those outcomes would alter the perception of both the quarterback position and the future of the coaching staff compared to where most opinions stand now.

The Ravens failing to make the playoffs and rolling with Flacco until falling out of the race — potentially leaving little time for Jackson to make an impression — would certainly be the path of least resistance to major changes. You’d like to see Flacco play more like he did in September to help his potential trade value, but keeping him for another year under this scenario would be a bigger indictment of Jackson’s behind-the-scenes development than a show of faith in what will be an expensive 34-year-old quarterback next season.

What if Flacco and the Ravens regroup to finish 9-7 and sneak into the playoffs for the first time since 2014? Would that be enough to call off what currently feels like the inevitable? Would a win in the wild-card round do it?

Flacco’s future would still be tied to Jackson’s readiness, but Harbaugh is only under contract through the 2019 season and you wouldn’t expect him to be receptive to another one-year extension, which could create a messy situation. Kansas City didn’t hesitate to trade 2017 Pro Bowl quarterback Alex Smith this past offseason to usher in the Patrick Mahomes era while Tennessee still fired head coach Mike Mularkey even after winning a first-round playoff game last January, leaving recent precedent to make bold changes — right or wrong — even after some modest success.

If you’re owner Steve Bisciotti, would the Ravens winning their remaining home games and squeaking out a road win over Atlanta, Kansas City, or the Los Angeles Chargers to slide into the playoffs drastically change your mind about a coach you admitted to considering firing a year ago or a quarterback whose eventual replacement was drafted this past April? Would you make a long-term commitment to keep Harbaugh if he forces your hand?

It’s a difficult call even when you remove sentimentality from the picture.

But that brings us to Jackson and how he fits into the decision-making process the rest of the way.

If the 21-year-old fills in for an injured Flacco on Sunday — or takes over in the next few weeks — and plays pretty well the rest of the way, wouldn’t you have to consider keeping a coaching staff that appears to have his development on the right track even if the Ravens fall short of the playoffs? Does it make sense to force Jackson to start over if he displays enough signs to suggest what the current staff is doing is working? Wasn’t one of the selling points of drafting the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner the fact that offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, quarterbacks coach James Urban, and assistant head coach Greg Roman had successfully worked with quarterbacks with similar skill sets in the past?

The current staff being let go at the end of 2018 is a potential scenario many pointed to when criticizing the Jackson pick in the first place.

That brings us to the possibility that Jackson really struggles while making some starts down the stretch, which wouldn’t be a shocking development for a rookie quarterback. That would mean no playoffs and easier justification for dismissing the current staff, but you’d also wonder how attractive the job might be to certain coaching candidates. Making any definitive judgments on Jackson based on a handful of games would be patently unfair, of course, but we’re also not talking about a Jared Goff, who was the first overall pick in Jeff Fisher’s final season with the Los Angeles Rams. Jackson would have fallen to the second round had Ozzie Newsome not traded up, so you do wonder how eager some candidates might be to work with him compared to an earlier pick like Baker Mayfield in Cleveland or even the opportunity to be part of the process to handpick your own quarterback elsewhere — like Harbaugh with Flacco a decade ago.

Then again, it was never a secret that Jackson would best fit a coach who embraces his unique skill set and will scheme accordingly rather than trying to fit him into a more conventional system. Those individuals are certainly out there.

Of course, this is all a big-picture look at the Ravens, something naturally done with an organization at a crossroads during its bye week. The current focus is on trying to figure out who’s going to be under center on Sunday and beating the Bengals, a team dealing with its own turmoil this week. Winning the next two games would put the long-term discussion on the back burner just like when the Ravens won in convincing fashion at Heinz Field to improve to 3-1 six weeks ago.

A lot can change in a short period of time.

“We’ll write the story of the Ravens’ 2018 season by how we play in the next seven weeks,” Harbaugh said on Monday. “That’s what our guys are juiced up for. All the other stuff is just fluff; it’s just noise; it’s just banter. It’s bar room talk.”

Maybe so, but these next seven weeks will be pivotal in determining the long-term outlook of the organization. Winning remains the priority for now, but how that relates to the future is more complicated.

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Questions plaguing the Ravens — and how assistant coaches answered

Posted on 07 November 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens are below the .500 mark at the bye for the fourth straight season, leaving plenty of questions for both the rest of the season and beyond.

Below are some answers to questions posed to Baltimore position coaches this week and some thoughts on what they had to say:

Why was the offensive line able to run-block so effectively even without six-time Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda last season and hasn’t this year?

Offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris: “Some things happen that way. There are situational [runs where] we’ve done very well. In the red zone, in two-minute when we’ve had to do that, we’re really prospering in the situational area. Some of the run game sometimes has sputtered. It’s a hit-and-miss [thing], and hopefully we can improve it. The good news is we have a game coming up against Cincinnati, and we’ll see how we’ll improve in that area.”

My take: Coaches rarely throw their players under the bus, but there obviously isn’t much insight offered here. I’ll never pretend to be an offensive line expert or anything close to it, but Matt Skura ranks 19th among qualified centers, Alex Lewis 63rd among qualified guards, and James Hurst 58th among qualified offensive tackles in Pro Football Focus’ grading system. The Ravens were justified not committing lucrative money to Ryan Jensen — who PFF ranks a disappointing 27th among qualified centers this year — but his physicality was critical for the running game a year ago. The solid play of rookie Orlando Brown Jr. could allow the Ravens to shift Hurst to left guard where he was a little better last season. As for D’Alessandris mentioning the red zone, the Ravens rank 12th in the NFL with a 54 percent success rate on runs inside the red zone, according to Sharp Football. That still doesn’t come close to making up for ranking 31st in yards per carry overall.

Why have the Ravens run the ball more effectively with Lamar Jackson in the game and not as well with their conventional offense?

Assistant head coach Greg Roman: “Anytime you have a dynamic quarterback that can run, you have an extra running back on the field, so you change the math so to speak. Now it gives you the ability to run called quarterback runs or you can run some quarterback-read-type plays. You’re essentially adding a number to the offense, which puts a little more stress on the defense. That’s really it in a nutshell. I think each week we’ve thrown some new stuff at people they haven’t seen before, so it takes them a little bit to adjust to that as well. The second tier of your question: I think guys are working hard. We’re grinding at it. We’re close on some things, but we just need a little bit more precision — little bit more precise coaching, playing, everything. We’re working in that direction. The thing we’re doing a very good job of is certain situational [runs]. Running situations, guys are doing a phenomenal job. I think we have the most short-yardage situations in the league. If not, I’d be very surprised. Guys are doing really good in that area, and when we have to run it, we’re doing a good job. We’re just not getting the big hits right now. Generally speaking, those things will happen just by everybody being a little bit more precise.”

My take: There isn’t much else to add here, but Roman was mostly right about short yardage as the Ravens have run the second-most plays of one yard to go for a first down or touchdown in the NFL behind only New England. Their 79 percent success rate on short-yardage runs is 10th best in the league, according to Sharp Football. It’s difficult imagining the Ravens getting where they want to go without finding that aforementioned precision when Jackson isn’t on the field. They’re just too predictable now.

Where have the takeaways gone after leading the NFL in that category last season?

Secondary coach Chris Hewitt: “The way I look at it is, we’re playing a little bit more man coverage than we’ve done in the past. We’re not playing as much zone as we’ve done in the past. We’re doing a lot more man coverage. When you’re playing as much man coverage as you are, you have your back to the quarterback. You can’t see the quarterback throwing the ball out of his hands and then be able to get a break on the ball. Now, when we do play zone coverages, and we get an opportunity to catch the ball, we have to catch the ball. Those are the things that, as far as with the sacks and takeaways, those things come in bunches.”

My take: This was an interesting point that has merit. I wrote at length about their lack of takeaways last week and acknowledged luck as being an undeniable variable in the Ravens only having seven takeaways in nine games. They’re tied for second in the NFL in passes defended, meaning they’re still batting passes at the line of scrimmage and getting their hands on footballs downfield. That said, it’s fair to question whether certain veterans have slowed down from previous seasons, turning potential takeaways until mere pass breakups. Perhaps even more surprising than the lack of interceptions has been the Ravens forcing only four fumbles this season after forcing 17 in 2017.

Why has the defense struggled to get off the field on third down in recent weeks?

Hewitt: “When you’re playing the type of coverages that we play and people are throwing the ball short and intermediate routes, I equate it to I’ll take the paper cut instead of somebody stabbing me in the heart, so I’m not trying to give up any big plays. We’ll take those little short-to-intermediate routes. Now, going with that, obviously we have to get off the field on third down. That’s something that we haven’t done a very good job of over the last two weeks or so. In this last game, we were 10-for-16 getting [off the field] on third down, and that can’t happen. For us to become the defense that we want to be — and we’re still a great defense, obviously, we’re still ranked No. 1, No. 2 against the pass or whatever we are as far as statistics are concerned — it’s all about limiting the opportunities for the offense to continue to keep those drives going. Again, we have to do better on third down. That’s the most important thing: We have to do better on third down, get ourselves off the field. But on first and second down, we can’t give them third-and-short, either. We have to do a better job on first and second down stopping them on first and second down. Now, we have third-and-long situations. Now, we can get a chance to go after the quarterback. We can play different zone coverages. Now, we get our eyes back on the quarterback, and now we can intercept some balls. But, as far as playing man coverages, sometimes you’re going to win some, sometimes you’re going to lose some. But, the ones that you lose, you want those to be five yards instead of 30 yards.”

My take: The Ravens have allowed the sixth-fewest number of completions of 20 or more yards and surrendered their first pass play of 40 or more yards of the season against the Steelers on Sunday. As for needing to avoid third-and-short situations, seven of Pittsburgh’s 10 conversions came on plays requiring six yards or less for a first down. The Ravens still rank fifth in the league in third-down defense, but it hasn’t been trending in the right direction against dynamic offenses the last three weeks.

Why has Joe Flacco’s play declined after such a promising September?

Quarterbacks coach James Urban: “Some of the big plays we’ve just missed on or just got edged or just didn’t have enough time, missed a couple throws that I’m sure he’d like to have back. But I think it’s not just one thing. I wish I could say, ‘It’s this one thing,’ or, ‘We need to do this more.’ That’s one thing that’s frustrating: We don’t turn the ball over and score 16 points [against Pittsburgh] — that’s not very common. But you miss two opportunities in the red zone. We were very, very good in the red zone for a long stretch. I think it’s a combination of several things. Joe was playing at a very high level. Joe is a tough sucker; he’s mentally tough. We just have to get over the hump. We just have to make a few more plays, and then it’ll just all happen naturally.”

My take: Remember how we were saying the early success for Flacco and the passing game wouldn’t continue without incorporating an effective running game? Since the Week 4 win at Pittsburgh, the 11th-year quarterback is averaging 5.8 yards per passing attempt and owns a 73.7 passer rating. He’s also leading the NFL in passing attempts, territory he shouldn’t approach. Haven’t we seen this movie before? You can harp on Flacco needing to be better all you want — that’s true, to be clear — but when has he ever played well for an extended period of time without a solid running game? That’s not magically changing.

Is it challenging for Flacco to find and maintain his rhythm with Jackson coming in and out of the game?

Urban: “It’s as much or as little as you allow it to be. That’s my experience. That goes back to years ago when Marty [Mornhinweg] and I were doing it with Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick. As much as you allow it to be a distraction, it’ll be a distraction. Joe has been great with that. He sees the production. He sees the plays that we’ve been able to use and utilize, and he understands that we’re just trying to get our best players out on the field to help us win.”

My take: This is a tricky balance since the Ravens haven’t shown the ability to sustain a ground game without the gadgetry involving Jackson. It’s impossible to quantify, but I don’t know how anyone could deny there being occasions when the offense loses its rhythm and becomes disjointed when the starting quarterback completes a couple passes and then is told to go out wide to stand as a receiver. As Andy Benoit of Sports Illustrated said this week, “When you watch Ravens film and see how the Lamar Jackson package impacts the down-to-down rhythm, there’s no way Flacco doesn’t hate it.”

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