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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-Jaguars: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 24 September 2016 by Luke Jones

The Ravens face a desperate team on Sunday.

After entering the season with much optimism about a talented core of young players, the Jacksonville Jaguars have stumbled out of the gate to an 0-2 start and were thoroughly outplayed in a 38-14 defeat in San Diego last week. Meanwhile, the Ravens have taken advantage of two below-average opponents to start 2-0 for the first time since 2009.

Facing the challenge of a second consecutive road game, the Ravens certainly hopes to start faster than last week when Cleveland took an early 20-0 lead and forced them to enter catch-up mode.

It’s time to go on the record as Baltimore seeks its first win in Jacksonville since 2001 when the teams were rivals in the old AFC Central. The Jaguars lead the all-time regular-season series with an 11-8 mark, but the Ravens have won eight of the last 11 meetings dating back to 2000. This marks the third straight year in which the Ravens and Jaguars have met with Jacksonville prevailing in a controversial 22-20 finish at M&T Bank Stadium last year.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. The Ravens will fail to score a touchdown in the first quarter for the third straight game. Slow starts have been too common in the brief Marc Trestman era, which hasn’t helped to jump-start the running game going back to last season. Baltimore should be aggressive early with vertical shots against a banged-up Jaguars secondary, but Trestman has been reluctant to do so in the opening quarter. An early touchdown would go a long way in frustrating an 0-2 opponent and killing what little home-field advantage exists at EverBank Field, but Jacksonville will play hard with its 2016 season already in peril.

2. Tavon Young will intercept a Blake Bortles pass to set up a Baltimore score. The Ravens intercepted two passes last week, which doesn’t sound out of the ordinary until you remember they only had six all last season. A unheralded contributor to a revamped secondary has been the rookie Young, who hasn’t played like a final-day draft pick so far. He made a couple key tackles on Cleveland’s final drive last week and has held up well in slot coverage. He’ll come away with his first career pick defending Marqise Lee to give the Ravens offense a short field.

3. Allen Robinson and Julius Thomas will catch touchdown passes for Jacksonville. The potential return of Elvis Dumervil would certainly help, but Baltimore will need to get more pressure off the edges against Bortles, who has plenty of weapons at his disposal despite his underwhelming performance through two games. Robinson and Allen Hurts are challenging enough to handle, but Thomas is healthy and has put up good numbers early. The Ravens have done a solid job against tight ends so far, but the memory of last year’s struggles covering that position is still too fresh.

4. Breshad Perriman will catch the first touchdown of his NFL career. It’s no secret that Joe Flacco has mostly thrown to Mike Wallace, Dennis Pitta, and Steve Smith as the trio of accounted for 43 targets out of 78 total passing attempts. However, Flacco would have connected on a long touchdown to Perriman against Cleveland’s Joe Haden had the pass been thrown more to the middle of the field. Since the 2015 first-round pick played his college ball a little over two hours away, Jacksonville feels like an appropriate place for him to finally hit pay dirt.

5. The home team feeling more urgency and needing a win will edge the Ravens in a 23-20 final. This game feels like little more than a coin flip, but Jacksonville can’t afford to lose this one whereas John Harbaugh’s team is playing with a little bit of house money after the largest road comeback win in franchise history last week. Baltimore can make a strong statement by improving to 3-0, but the Jaguars will prove they’re better than they were a week ago by making just a couple more plays than the Ravens to prevail in a close game. If this were a home game for the Ravens, I’d pick them instead.

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Jaguars castoffs have found greener pastures in Baltimore

Posted on 10 December 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — A year ago at this time, Justin Forsett had just been placed on injured reserve and knew his NFL career was at a crossroads after carrying the ball just six times in an injury-plagued season with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

No one could have predicted how dramatically his career would change as the Ravens running back enters Sunday’s game against his old team ranked third in the NFL in rushing and leading all running backs with a 5.6 yards per carry average. His 14 runs of 20 or more yards lead the league and are more than the Jaguars have — along with 28 other teams — this season.

But the 29-year-old can’t help but think about how far he’s come from being an afterthought on one of the NFL’s worst franchises to becoming a standout performer for an 8-5 Ravens team targeting a playoff spot.

“The writing was kind of on the wall when I was at the bottom of the depth chart and on injured reserve,” said Forsett about his lone season in Jacksonville. “I wasn’t really surprised, but it was still a hard pill to swallow knowing that you’ve been cut and [you] didn’t know what the future was going to hold. But I just kept the faith, kept working, and this opportunity came up.”

Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley doesn’t express regret — to be fair, not even the Ravens expected a 1,000-yard season from the journeyman back — but shared his admiration for a player who’s always been respected as a hard worker and good teammate. Those traits have drawn the Ravens to three Jacksonville castoffs in the last two years as Forsett only followed the 2013 additions of linebacker Daryl Smith, the Jaguars’ all-time leading tackler, and left tackle Eugene Monroe.

All three now start for the Ravens, who have a 2014 win total (eight) that matches the number of games the Jaguars have won in the last three seasons combined.

“Just because I know him so well, it’s more excitement for him,” said Bradley, who also spent time with Forsett when he was the defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks. “He’s so deserving of it — what he brings to the locker room, what he brings to the team. I am just excited for what he’s brought to Baltimore.”

Bradley also spoke highly of Smith and Monroe as the former never played for the current Jaguars coach while Monroe was dealt to the Ravens last October, several months after Jacksonville had drafted offensive tackle Luke Joeckel with the second overall pick. The Jaguars received fourth- and fifth-round draft picks from Baltimore, which were then parlayed into three players this past May. The Jaguars decided to part ways with Smith as a result of desiring more youth at the linebacker position while Monroe was entering the final year of his rookie contract.

Smith and Monroe both received long-term deals from the Ravens this past offseason, showing how much general manager Ozzie Newsome thought of their play in their first season in Baltimore.

Though slowed by a knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery earlier this season, Monroe has stabilized the left tackle spot and has acknowledged feeling revitalized with the Ravens after winning only 22 games in five seasons with Jacksonville. The winning atmosphere was a reason why he signed a five-year, $37.5 million contract to remain in Baltimore.

“I don’t know if [being in the playoff hunt] makes you a better player, but it certainly forces you to zero in on everything your job requires,” said Monroe, who downplayed the significance of facing his former team because of so much roster turnover in the last year or two. “It’s going to be crucial at this point of the year being fundamentally sound and being physical. That’s what it’s going to come down to.”

Forsett, Smith, and Monroe escaped what many would describe as football purgatory to find greener pastures in Baltimore. The veteran running back’s emergence has received the national headlines while making Ray Rice’s on-field presence a distant memory. Smith has helped bridge the gap at the inside linebacker from the Ray Lewis era and has mentored rookie standout C.J. Mosley, and Monroe has effectively protected quarterback Joe Flacco’s blindside to end unrest at his position that had existed for years.

Meanwhile, the Jaguars continue to try to find their way as an organization that hasn’t produced a winning season since 2007.

None of the three have offered any ill will over the Jaguars’ decision to move on, but their arrival has paid major dividends for the Ravens as they pursue their sixth postseason appearance in seven years.

“No resentment, because all of the pain and the hurt I may have felt during that time, it made me a better man,” Forsett said. “Those dark moments, those times of frustration — they happen for a reason. I’m definitely a better man today because of it. Those times really molded me.”

The Ravens have also been better for it.

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