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Ravens-Bills: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 07 December 2019 by Luke Jones

Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen were the most scrutinized of the five quarterbacks selected in the first round of the 2018 draft, but both are leading their teams to prosperity as the rest of the class struggles a year later.

Jackson’s MVP-sized leap has positioned the Ravens as the top team in the AFC entering Week 14 while Allen’s improvement has Buffalo in position for its first double-digit-win season in 20 years and only its second trip to the playoffs since 1999. Baltimore is trying to hold off New England for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs while the Bills are just a game behind the Patriots in the AFC East, creating no shortage of ramifications for Sunday’s encounter at New Era Field.

It’s time to go on the record as these AFC teams meet for the ninth time in the all-time series with the Ravens holding a 5-3 advantage. However, the Bills are 2-0 against the Ravens in Buffalo.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Jackson will break the single-season rushing record for a quarterback with a highlight touchdown. Just 62 yards separate Jackson from Michael Vick’s mark of 1,039 rushing yards in 2006, making it a simple matter of when the Ravens quarterback breaks the record. He has rushed for at least 65 yards in eight of the last nine games and leads the NFL with nine run plays of at least 20 yards, so why not break the NFL record in style against a defense ranking 21st in the NFL in yards per carry allowed?

2. The Ravens defense will give up 140 rushing yards for the second straight week. Jackson isn’t the only flashy runner in this one as Bills running back Devin Singletary ranks third in the NFL at 5.6 yards per carry and trails only Jackson for the highest percentage of carries of 10 or more yards. Baltimore’s sensational offense has masked a run defense ranking 22nd in yards per carry allowed and 25th in efficiency. Both Singletary and Allen can be problematic on the edges if Buffalo stays in the game.

3. A punt block will help set up a Baltimore score. Marlon Humphrey blocked the first field goal of the season for the Ravens and the punt return team also came close to a block last week while the Bills rank 28th in special-teams efficiency and have been particularly vulnerable in the punt game this season. There’s no threat of bitter temperatures or major precipitation for Sunday’s game, but winds 15 to 20 miles per hour could be a factor in the kicking game, an area where Baltimore has a sharp advantage.

4. Mark Ingram will eclipse 100 rushing yards for the fifth time this season. The defenses that have done the most respectable job of slowing the Ravens — no one has come close to stopping them, of course — have taken away the run between the tackles and made Jackson more of a one-man show. With the Bills sporting the NFL’s third-ranked pass defense and wind being a factor, the Ravens will want to wear down a weak run defense with Ingram and Gus Edwards in a grind-it-out affair.

5. Baltimore will win its ninth straight game in a 26-14 final. Buffalo definitely earned some respect for its convincing road win over Dallas on Thanksgiving, but the Bills have played the easiest schedule in the NFL to this point and own the lowest strength of victory in the AFC. The Ravens not only beat the NFC’s former top seed in San Francisco last week, but they did it in a way that exposed a few flaws for the coaching staff to capture players’ attention in case anyone was growing a little too cocky after five straight double-digit wins. Allen has made real strides as a passer since early in the season and the Bills are good enough to pull off an upset in what should be a raucous atmosphere, but that would require the Ravens to provide some help with the kind of mistakes we’ve rarely seen over the last two months. Sunday won’t be a blowout, but it won’t feel like the Ravens are in real danger of losing either.

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Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Seth Roberts (11) celebrates with teammates Marquise Brown (15) and Willie Snead (83) after scoring on a touchdown pass from Lamar Jackson, not visible, during the first half of an NFL football game against the Houston Texans, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 11 win over Houston

Posted on 19 November 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens winning a sixth consecutive game for the first time since 2000 in a 41-7 demolition of Houston, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The debate over MVP continues, but I don’t know how anyone could objectively watch the Ravens win their last four games — three against playoff contenders — by a combined 101 points and not say they’re football’s best team. They look like they’re playing a different sport than everyone else right now.

2. I had to laugh at overreaction from the few remaining critics about Lamar Jackson’s 1-for-6 first quarter before he completed 13 straight passes and finished the day with four touchdown passes. Four other quarterbacks threw four interceptions in Week 11, one shy of Jackson’s season total.

3. Jackson ranks 11th or better in completion percentage, passing yards per attempt, touchdown passes, QBR, and passer rating. He’s fifth in Pro Football Focus’ passer grading. Yes, his rushing ability is what makes him special, but he’s made an obvious statement as an above-average passer this season.

4. Matthew Judon was a game wrecker with two sacks, an additional tackle for a loss, four quarterback hits, a forced fumble, and seven total tackles. We can debate to what lengths the Ravens should go to extend him, but Judon is going to get paid very handsomely.

5. His role predictably changed with the Mark Ingram addition, but Gus Edwards had a 63-yard touchdown and 112-yard rushing day against a Houston run defense that hadn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in the regular season since 2017. He could be the best short-yardage back in the NFL.

6. Seth Roberts caught his first touchdown of 2019, but wide receivers combined for just five catches for 51 yards. That’s not a stat line you typically associate with a 34-point victory, but this group works hard as blockers and doesn’t complain about the lack of involvement in the passing game.

7. There was plenty of bravado from Marcus Peters when he matched up against All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Peters’ play has been excellent, and his preparation and professionalism have been praised since his arrival. Regardless of what happens with his free agency, this trade was outstanding.

8. Watching Ingram’s second touchdown made me wonder if Jackson is giving his teammates pointers for when they’re in the open field. This offense is something else to watch, scoring on seven straight drives — not counting the kneel to end the first half — after a slow start.

9. Jackson targeting Miles Boykin on two of the first three pass plays seemed like a deliberate attempt to get the rookie more involved. There was optimism that Boykin might be turning the corner after his 50-yard catch in Seattle, but he hasn’t registered a catch since the bye.

10. We didn’t see many wrinkles from Houston coming off the bye as I expected Bill O’Brien would at least use more of an up-tempo attack to offset Baltimore’s frequent substituting. I was disappointed Deshaun Watson, a terrific quarterback, didn’t hold up his end of the anticipated showdown with Jackson.

11. The Ravens are six touchdowns shy of the single-season franchise record (47) set in 2009. We’re still a week from Thanksgiving. This is the most impressive regular-season team we’ve seen in Baltimore since at least 2006, a team often forgotten because of the crushing playoff loss to Indianapolis.

12. I try to tread carefully with attendance since I haven’t paid to go to a Ravens game since 2010, but I was surprised over the number of empty seats at the stadium. There was much buzz for a matchup between two young stars at quarterback and two 2018 playoff teams.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts going into Week 9

Posted on 29 October 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens coming off their bye week with a 5-2 record and a two-game lead in the AFC North, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The winless Miami Dolphins were the big only “buyers” on a toothless trade deadline day, but remember the Ravens acquired two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters two weeks ago for a benched linebacker and a 2020 fifth-round pick. That’s a lot more than other contenders could say.

2. That Eric DeCosta inquired about Pro Bowl safety Jamal Adams reaffirms the philosophy of having a strong secondary above all else on defense. Legitimate pass-rush concerns remain, but having Peters and a healthy Jimmy Smith helps reset the defense closer to its pre-summer state. We’ll see how it plays out.

3. Not counting Pittsburgh’s annual trip to Baltimore, I’m not sure the Ravens have played a more anticipated home game in the regular season since hosting New England for Sunday Night Football in 2012, a contest sandwiched between their AFC Championship meetings. I can’t wait.

4. After labeling Lamar Jackson “a big problem” for his defense, Bill Belichick is bound to show the young quarterback something he hasn’t seen before. However, the future Hall of Fame coach hasn’t seen a talent quite like Jackson either. I’ll repeat that throughout the week.

5. If you bristled over the talk about the Ravens’ schedule prior to the win at Seattle, pump the brakes on being too dismissive about the New England defense’s slate of opponents to this point. The numbers are simply ridiculous — even against bad competition — in today’s NFL.

6. The Ravens are 9-2 immediately following their bye in the John Harbaugh era with the only defeats coming in 2013 and 2015, two of Harbaugh’s three non-winning seasons. That doesn’t guarantee victory, but Baltimore usually plays its best with extra time to prepare, which isn’t a given in this league.

7. Former Raven Lawrence Guy has carved out a nice place for himself in New England, but his career highlight may now be his involvement in a play the “Butt Fumble” thought was embarrassing. Congratulations are in order for his first career interception.

8. I’ve been asked recently about Gus Edwards receiving more touches. Edwards has averaged 5.2 yards per carry since Week 3 while Mark Ingram — a more complete back — has been slowed some recently, but there’s only one football. I suspect we’ll see a few more carries for Edwards down the stretch.

9. After watching another uninspiring performance by Cleveland and Pittsburgh falling behind 14-0 to Miami before waking up to regroup, I remain convinced it would take quite a collapse by the Ravens to not win the AFC North in comfortable fashion. Those division foes aren’t reeling off a long winning streak.

10. The Willie Snead extension didn’t prove to be the harbinger of a deadline trade, but Baltimore had under $2 million in salary cap space and needed flexibility for inevitable roster maneuvering the rest of the way. It’s a solid move to keep a reliable slot receiver who’s a good blocker.

11. News of C.J. Mosley missing at least another five to six weeks with a groin injury was bad news for the Ravens’ projected third-round compensatory pick. The more time he misses, the greater the chance that selection becomes a fourth-rounder. Mosley missed just three games in five years with Baltimore.

12. The Ravens will be wearing their black jerseys for the first time this season, and Ed Reed will be in the house to receive his Hall of Fame ring at halftime. As if you needed more reason to be pumped for a game against Tom Brady and the undefeated Patriots.

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Revisiting 2019 Ravens predictions coming out of bye week

Posted on 28 October 2019 by Luke Jones

Looking back at preseason predictions can be an amusing or embarrassing exercise, but that’s what makes it fun, right?

If we truly knew how the Ravens’ 2019 season would play out, I’d spend less time writing about it and more time pondering my retirement plans at the nearest sportsbook. As it relates to the present, I originally envisioned Baltimore being 4-3 at the bye with the result of the Cleveland and Pittsburgh games flipped and a loss at Seattle in Week 7. I certainly didn’t anticipate the rest of the AFC North being a combined 4-17 entering Monday, which bodes very well for the Ravens the rest of the way.

Let’s review how my 10 Ravens predictions for 2019 are holding up through the bye week and adjust where necessary:

1. Lamar Jackson won’t break Michael Vick’s season rushing record for a quarterback, but his 3,000 passing yards and 60-percent completion percentage will be positive steps in his development.

Remember Week 1 when Lamar Jackson ran the ball only three times, one of those being an end-of-half kneel? The 22-year-old quarterback has registered double-digit carries in four of the last six games, leads the NFL in yards per carry (6.9), and is 10th overall in rushing. He’s not only going to shatter Vick’s record (1,039 yards in 2006), but Jackson will finish with just over 3,400 passing yards and a completion percentage over 60 percent. We’re watching a special talent who has shown marked improvement from his rookie year and is firmly in the MVP discussion halfway through the season.

2. The defense will register 37 sacks and see its pressure rate fall to the bottom half of the league.

I was too generous in the sack department as Baltimore is currently on pace to finish with 27 quarterback takedowns, but there is at least some evidence suggesting the pass rush is better than the sack total indicates if you look at quarterback hits and ESPN Analytics’ pass rush win rate. Of course, Pernell McPhee’s season-ending injury complicates that argument and puts more pressure on Eric DeCosta to land a pass rusher by Tuesday’s trade deadline. The biggest factor helping the pass rush could be the acquisition of Marcus Peters and the return of Jimmy Smith, who should provide better coverage in the secondary. Put me down for 30 sacks by season’s end.

3. Mark Ingram will give Baltimore its first 1,000-yard rusher since Justin Forsett.

The former New Orleans Saint has been as advertised with a 4.7 yards per carry average and is on pace to gain 1,074 rushing yards. However, it’s fair to note that opposing defenses have been more successful slowing the Baltimore ground game between the tackles in recent weeks as Ingram has averaged only 3.2 yards per attempt over the last three contests. Opponents must make a conscious choice between accounting for runs between the tackles and trying to prevent Jackson from killing them off the edge. With that push-pull dilemma, Jackson and Ingram will become the first teammates to rush for 1,000 yards in the same season since Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams for Carolina in 2009.

4. Mark Andrews and Patrick Onwuasor will take a step forward.

If there was one prediction I was confident about prior to the season, it was Andrews breaking out as one of the NFL’s top tight ends. Even with some nagging injuries and a nightmare Week 7 showing against the Seahawks, Andrews is on pace to become the first tight end in team history to go over 1,000 receiving yards. Meanwhile, Onwuasor has taken a step back after struggling at the “Mike” linebacker position and missing the last two games with a high ankle sprain. How that impacts his value going into free agency will be interesting, but his return to the weak-side spot should be a plus for him and the pass rush when considering Onwuasor’s ability to blitz and the 5 1/2 sacks he collected last year.

5. Gus Edwards and Jimmy Smith will take a step back.

Since averaging an underwhelming 3.35 yards per carry in the first two games, Edwards has been very productive at 5.2 yards per carry over the last five contests. The problem continues to be few chances when you’re behind arguably the most dynamic running quarterback in NFL history and a two-time Pro Bowl back in the pecking order. Edwards could see a few more carries here and there, but there’s only one football to go around. Smith’s knee injury on the sixth defensive snap of the season was unfortunate in a contract year, but it’s the story of his career as he’s now missed at least four games in seven of his nine seasons. The 31-year-old does have time to rebuild some value and give the Ravens a boost the rest of the way, but we’ll always wonder how much better Smith might have been with good health.

6. Ben Powers will be starting at left guard by the bye week.

Based on comments made by offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris last week, there’s little reason to believe Bradley Bozeman won’t be starting at left guard against New England. The second-year lineman hasn’t been great every week, but Pro Football Focus has graded him 42nd among qualified guards, a reminder that there just isn’t as much quality around the league as fans and some media want to believe when scrutinizing individual teams. Powers has been a healthy scratch every week and received a lengthy look at left guard early in training camp before falling out of the starting race, factors leading one to believe the 2019 fourth-round pick isn’t beating down the door for a starting gig at this point. If anything, fellow rookie Patrick Mekari would seem to be the first in line to replace Bozeman.

7. A rough November will cost the Ravens their chance at winning the AFC North.

This month’s schedule remains challenging with three of the four opponents sporting no worse than a 5-3 record and even lowly Cincinnati coming off its bye to host the Ravens in Week 10, but John Harbaugh’s team clearly has some room for error with the rest of the AFC North under .500. Even a disastrous November coupled with Pittsburgh or Cleveland reeling off a perfect month would leave the Ravens in the thick of the division race entering December. More importantly, the convincing road win over the Seahawks provided much confidence that the Ravens can at least hold their own with five of the next six games coming against teams owning winning records.

8. Miles Boykin will tie the franchise rookie record for touchdown receptions with seven.

If you’d told me at the start of the season that one of Baltimore’s two rookie wide receivers would have 21 catches for 326 yards and three touchdowns at the bye, I would have picked Boykin after Marquise Brown missed the entire spring and a large portion of the summer recovering from Lisfranc surgery. Boykin does have two touchdowns and has recorded his two longest catches over the last two games, but he has much work ahead to match the record shared by Torrey Smith and Marlon Brown. If fully healthy — a fair question after a two-game absence — Marquise Brown has the better chance to break it.

9. Marlon Humphrey, Marshal Yanda, and Earl Thomas will be named to the Pro Bowl.

Despite being a little less consistent than last season, Humphrey has made enough splash plays to keep himself in position for his first Pro Bowl invitation with a strong finish to the season. The 35-year-old Yanda is no longer the best guard in football, but he continues to play at a high level to presumably receive the nod for the eighth time in his career. Thomas hasn’t been spectacular, but he has played well and benefits from a strong reputation around the league in the same way Eric Weddle did. I’ll add Jackson and Andrews to my list of Pro Bowl picks with Ronnie Stanley being a first alternate.

10. A December rally will lead to a 9-7 finish and another trip to the playoffs.

With the current state of the AFC North and the Ravens off to a 5-2 start, anything less than a division championship and a home playoff game would be a big disappointment, but the final month of the season does look more difficult than it did several weeks ago with San Francisco still undefeated and playoff-hopeful Buffalo likely having much to play for in Week 14. I thought throughout the offseason that the Ravens had a higher ceiling — and a lower floor — than in recent years because of their youth, but Jackson’s development was always going to be the biggest factor determining their fate. With the second-year quarterback playing like a legitimate MVP candidate, I see the Ravens going 11-5 and advancing to the divisional round of the playoffs. A deeper postseason run no longer feels farfetched if they can stay healthy the rest of the way.

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Ravens-Bengals: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 12 October 2019 by Luke Jones

Recent history tells us Sunday’s game with Cincinnati should be a major concern for the Ravens, but the present paints a different picture.

John Harbaugh’s team is not without its issues, of course, but the Bengals are 0-5 under new coach Zac Taylor, rank in the bottom six in both scoring offense and scoring defense, and have already ruled out six players for Week 6. That list includes seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green and two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Carlos Dunlap, two players who’ve tormented the Ravens over the years.

It’s time to go on the record as these division rivals collide for the 47th time in the all-time regular-season series with each team owning 23 victories and the Ravens enjoying a 15-8 advantage at home. However, Baltimore is 10-12 against the Bengals under Harbaugh and has lost three of the last five meetings at M&T Bank Stadium.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Rookie Jaylon Ferguson will register his first sack as part of a season-best four for the Baltimore defense. The Bengals drafted Jonah Williams in the first round to be their left tackle before he underwent shoulder surgery. Incumbent left tackle Cordy Glenn has yet to play this year due to a concussion while backup Andre Smith is also out with an ankle injury. Cincinnati has already allowed 20 sacks. If the Ravens can’t get their pass rush going this week, it could be hopeless.

2. Tyler Eifert will catch his first touchdown against the Ravens since 2016. Injuries derailed what looked like a promising career for the 2013 first-round pick, but Eifert is healthy and off to a decent start. Meanwhile, the Ravens could be without Patrick Onwuasor Sunday and lost Tony Jefferson for the season last week. The Bengals would be foolish not to test the inside linebackers and whoever is playing strong safety in coverage with tight ends and running backs in the passing game.

3. Lamar Jackson will throw for 200 yards and run for 100 without a turnover. The 22-year-old is coming off his worst passing performance of the season, but it’s hardly panic time with a young quarterback making his 13th career regular-season start. The game looks to be moving a little faster for Jackson than it was over the first couple games, but the Cincinnati defense has been woeful against both the pass and run, which should leave plenty of ways for offensive coordinator Greg Roman to get his quarterback moving in the right direction again.

4. Andy Dalton will throw two interceptions to go with his 250 yards. The Bengals are averaging just 3.3 yards per carry this season and going against a Baltimore front with a healthy Brandon Williams, which will put it all on the Cincinnati quarterback’s right shoulder. Even without Green, the Bengals still have Tyler Boyd and the improving Auden Tate at the wide receiver position. The Ravens defense will bend, but Dalton will make too many mistakes playing from behind.

5. Three Ravens players will each rush for over 50 yards in a 27-14 win. Last season’s home victory over the Bengals was Jackson’s first start and the debut of a run-heavy offensive attack that took the league by storm down the stretch. Cincinnati is giving up 167.6 rushing yards per game and an unseemly 5.0 yards per carry this season. The Ravens will be more aggressive and balanced in the first half to jump in front before settling into last year’s second-half formula as Jackson, Mark Ingram, and Gus Edwards gash the Bengals on the ground and control the clock in a relatively comfortable win.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 3 loss to Kansas City

Posted on 24 September 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens suffering their first loss of the season in a 33-28 final at Kansas City, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Those criticizing the unsuccessful fourth down and two-point conversions must acknowledge John Harbaugh netted the Ravens six points by scoring touchdowns in two situations many coaches would “take the points” and kick field goals. You can’t have it both ways and judge only by the end result.

2. I agree going for two when down 11 sounds counterintuitive. However, are you then trusting a defense that forced two punts all day to get two stops in regulation and likely another in overtime to win? Playing for a tie doesn’t always give you the best chance to win.

3. I’d probably take more issue with the failed fourth down on the second drive if the Ravens didn’t pin Kansas City deep to conclude their following series and allow an 83-yard touchdown three plays later. This was a game about maximizing scoring over trying to play field position.

4. Now, the play calls themselves and the execution in those situations left much to be desired. The analytics would also support not going for it if the Ravens continue to struggle to convert, but this offense is built to succeed in short yardage.

5. The Ravens couldn’t have asked for a better early return from Mark Ingram, who is on pace to rush for over 1,300 yards despite averaging less than 15 carries per game. His leadership is also valued, but that carries much more clout when a player produces at a high level.

6. Lamar Jackson came back to earth in Week 3, but there’s no reason to be discouraged by that. His timing and accuracy never quite got on track against Kansas City’s secondary, but the 22-year-old continued to compete in the second half and still made some highlight plays in the process.

7. Jackson has now gone eight straight regular-season games without an interception. His field vision doesn’t receive enough credit, but he was lucky to see that streak continue Sunday after throwing multiple passes that could have been picked.

8. Anthony Averett has had the chance to show he can handle a full-time role, but it hasn’t gone well. In addition to struggling in coverage, Averett failed to recover a gift-wrapped fumble on the opening drive and missed a tackle on Mecole Hardman that led to a big gain.

9. Gus Edwards hadn’t looked as explosive or physical over the first two games, but he quelled concerns with 53 yards on seven carries and a 45-yard run wiped out by a questionable holding call. It’s challenging for Greg Roman to get him carries with Ingram running so well.

10. Sunday served as a reminder of the need to get other receivers more involved as Mark Andrews was slowed by a foot issue and the Chiefs took away the deep stuff to Marquise Brown. Willie Snead and Seth Roberts combining for five catches and 84 yards was a silver lining.

11. Miles Boykin received much hype and played well during training camp, but his rookie campaign is off to a slow start with just two catches for 16 yards in three games. One of Jackson’s prettier passes Sunday went through Boykin’s fingers on Baltimore’s final touchdown drive.

12. The offensive line wasn’t perfect against Kansas City, but Bradley Bozeman has rarely been mentioned over the first three games. That’s good news for a left guard position that was scrutinized all spring and summer.

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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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Ten Ravens predictions for the 2019 season

Posted on 06 September 2019 by Luke Jones

Instead of going through the exercise of making league-wide predictions, the following focus on the Ravens and their goal to win back-to-back AFC North division titles for just the second time in team history:

1. Lamar Jackson won’t break Michael Vick’s season rushing record for a quarterback, but his 3,000 passing yards and 60-percent completion percentage will be positive steps in his development.

Make no mistake, the 22-year-old will continue to run more than any quarterback in the NFL, but general manager Eric DeCosta didn’t invest meaningful resources at running back and the Ravens didn’t practice their passing game so exhaustively this summer for Jackson to again average 17 carries per game like he did as a starter last season. There won’t be a rigid cap on how much he runs, but this offense will use more play action and run-pass options to create higher-percentage, short-to-intermediate throws with occasional deep shots. He’ll still have accuracy lapses, but his mechanics were steadier and he threw the ball more consistently all summer. The biggest question is how much he’s improved his ball security, an area more difficult to gauge in controlled practice environments without the threat of contact.

2. The defense will register 37 sacks and see its pressure rate fall to the bottom half of the league.

Baltimore was tied for 11th with 43 sacks last year, but its pressure rate (33.4 percent) ranked eighth in the league, according to Football Outsiders. Wink Martindale isn’t panicking with one of the best secondaries in the NFL backing up his well-designed blitzes, but there’s so much uncertainty beyond Matthew Judon. Pernell McPhee should provide some help if his snaps are managed properly, but Willie Henry and Shane Ray, two players thought to be potential answers, were jettisoned at the end of the summer. Za’Darius Smith and Terrell Suggs weren’t elite last year, but expecting the trio of Tyus Bowser, Tim Williams, and rookie Jaylon Ferguson to just step in without drop-off and growing pains is asking a lot. The good news is Football Outsiders ranked the Ravens first in their DVOA defensive metric when failing to pressure, again illustrating the secondary’s value. They’ll lean on that more heavily this year.

3. Mark Ingram will give Baltimore its first 1,000-yard rusher since Justin Forsett.

Frank Gore averaged 268 carries per season in Greg Roman’s four-year run in San Francisco and LeSean McCoy was on a similar workload pace in an injury-abbreviated 2015 season in Buffalo, dispelling the myth that the new Ravens offensive coordinator prefers a timeshare at the running back position. That’s not to say 2018 leading rusher Gus Edwards and rookie fourth-round pick Justice Hill won’t have roles, but the Ravens gave Ingram $6.5 million guaranteed for a reason after they had already averaged 5.1 yards per carry over the final seven regular-season games last year. Ingram’s career-high 230 carries two years ago seems like a reasonable mark for him to approach or even surpass.

4. Mark Andrews and Patrick Onwuasor will take a step forward.

It’s easy envisioning Andrews as Baltimore’s leading receiver with Jackson’s passing strength being over the middle and the wide receivers being so inexperienced. Volume remains a question, but seeing the 2018 third-round pick produce 2002-03 Todd Heap-like numbers wouldn’t be shocking. We’ve spent so much time discussing the pass rush this summer that we forget Onwuasor will be replacing four-time Pro Bowl selection C.J. Mostly and only played 41.9 percent of defensive snaps last year. The Ravens wanted Mosley back before offers from the New York Jets became too lucrative, but Onwuasor will be steady enough to ease concerns about the position, even if inside linebacker won’t be viewed as a strength.

5. Gus Edwards and Jimmy Smith will take a step back.

Edwards won’t go by the wayside like recent season leading rushers like Alex Collins, Terrance West, and Forsett, but he’ll have a reduced role and could even lose backup touches to the speedy Hill as the year progresses. The 2018 rookie free agent averaged an impressive 5.2 yards per carry last season, but his best bet might be short-yardage situations and a bigger fourth-quarter share of carries when the Ravens lead. Entering the final year of his contract, Smith is now 31 and has plenty of wear on the tires after a number of injuries over the years. The veteran cornerback had an uneven training camp, but he has much incentive to prove his value, whether in Baltimore or elsewhere on the free-agent market.

6. Ben Powers will be starting at left guard by the bye week.

The late-summer signs pointed to Bradley Bozeman beginning the season as the starting left guard, but we won’t know for sure until Sunday and this position remains a week-to-week evaluation anyway. Ideally, Powers, a fourth-round rookie from Oklahoma, would be ready to take over in the way Orlando Brown Jr. did at right tackle last October, but he struggled with first-team reps early this summer.

7. A rough November will cost the Ravens their chance at winning the AFC North.

The month of October has frequently been the bane of John Harbaugh’s existence in the past, but the November pain won’t be because of New England’s Sunday night trip to Baltimore. The Ravens will take full advantage of their Week 8 bye to knock off Tom Brady and the Patriots, but three straight losses will follow as they play at Cincinnati and host Houston with both teams coming off their byes, a tricky scheduling quirk not to be overlooked. The month concludes with a long trip to Los Angeles to play the Rams on a Monday night, another defeat that will have the Ravens’ playoff hopes looking bleak.

8. Miles Boykin will tie the franchise rookie record for touchdown receptions with seven.

First-round pick Marquise Brown missing Friday’s practice was a reminder that early expectations should be tempered after he missed so much valuable practice time in the spring and summer and is still managing his surgically-repaired foot to some degree. Meanwhile, Boykin was impressive during the summer and presents a 6-foot-4, 220-pound target with speed for a quarterback whose accuracy issues aren’t a big secret. Boykin, a third-round pick from Notre Dame, won’t put up monster numbers overall, but he will offer a nice boost inside the red zone, an area where the Ravens’ revamped offense struggled down the stretch last year. He’ll tie the record shared by Torrey Smith (2011) and Marlon Brown (2013).

9. Marlon Humphrey, Marshal Yanda, and Earl Thomas will be named to the Pro Bowl.

After being voted Ravens MVP by the local media last year and receiving more praise for his play this offseason, Humphrey appears primed to become Baltimore’s first Pro Bowl cornerback since Chris McAlister in 2006. Meanwhile, Yanda will continue to add to a resume that will receive strong Hall of Fame consideration with his eighth trip to the Pro Bowl in the last nine years. Some intrigue remains over just how close Thomas will be to his old self after his second broken left leg in a three-season period, but he’ll extend the Ravens’ streak of sending a safety to the Pro Bowl to four straight years. Left tackle Ronnie Stanley and Andrews will be named Pro Bowl alternates.

10. A December rally will lead to a 9-7 finish and another trip to the playoffs.

A 5-6 record and plenty of outside doubts entering the final month won’t stop the Ravens from getting hot and reeling off three straight wins to put themselves back in wild-card position. A last-minute defeat at Cleveland in Week 16 will look like the death knell, but the Browns will “Brown” their playoff spot away in a season-ending loss at Cincinnati while the Ravens will regroup to beat the AFC North champion Steelers, who will only be playing for playoff seeding in Week 17. Baltimore will follow that up with a road playoff win over the Texans before bowing out in the divisional round, ending a promising year for a young team with plenty of salary cap space and draft capital going into 2020.

Bonus Super Bowl pick no one asked for: Kansas City 30, Philadelphia 24

I just can’t stomach predicting another championship for New England, so I’ll go with Chiefs head coach Andy Reid finally getting over the hump against the team he coached for 14 seasons.

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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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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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