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Ravens re-sign tight end Boyle to three-year deal

Posted on 07 March 2019 by Luke Jones

The Ravens have retained a key cog in offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s run-blocking schemes.

Tight end Nick Boyle signed a three-year extension worth a reported $18 million with $10 million guaranteed just days before he was set to become an unrestricted free agent. Several reports suggested there were multiple teams interested in the 2015 fifth-round pick’s services, but the Ravens value tight ends as much as anyone in the NFL at this point, making it a priority for general manager Eric DeCosta to prevent Boyle from hitting the open market.

“I didn’t want to go to another team. I don’t think [my wife] Kristina did either,” Boyle said. “I think we love it here. We love the relationships. Is it interesting to see where I can go [in free agency]? As long as I thought it was fair and something that we wanted here, I would just come back here.”

Boyle, 26, caught 23 passes for a career-high 213 yards last season, but it was his run-blocking ability that helped key a second-half surge that resulted in the Ravens winning their first AFC North championship since 2012. He led all Baltimore tight ends with 651 offensive snaps played.

After being suspended twice for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy in his first two seasons — head coach John Harbaugh described it as a “double down on dumb” after the second ban was announced in 2016 — the Delaware product established himself as a vital component of the offense in 2017 by catching a career-high 28 passes and starting 11 games. That meaningful role continued last season even with the Ravens drafting tight ends Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews as Boyle started 13 games and cemented his reputation as one of the better blocking tight ends in the NFL. Pro Football Focus graded Boyle sixth in run blocking among tight ends with at least 200 snaps on rushing plays.

“I think he’s an all-around tight end,” Harbaugh said. “I would say he’s the best blocking tight end in the league; there’s no question in my mind about that. He sets the edge. He sets the tempo. He’s a physical presence out there, but he’s definitely an underrated talent in the passing game, and you’ve seen that when he gets an opportunity to catch passes and run routes. He makes those plays.”

The Ravens reportedly hosted former New England tight end Dwayne Allen on a free-agent visit earlier this week, which likely helped push negotiations with Boyle to a completed deal. Baltimore tight end Maxx Williams is also scheduled to hit the free-agent market next week.

In 48 career games, Boyle has made 75 receptions for 613 yards and has yet to catch a touchdown, something his critics have pointed out in the wake of the contract news.

“I see it all the time. They’ll say, ‘Nick Boyle, who?’” said Boyle as he laughed. “It’s fine. That’s a huge thing like, ‘Oh, paying this guy a lot, and he didn’t get a touchdown.’ Whatever they want to say, they can say. It’s not hurting my feelings.

“But I have a lot of pride in what I do. Whether it’s catching a pass or having a really key block on a certain play, I think I get the same satisfaction out of it.”

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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 following 27-24 loss at Kansas City

Posted on 11 December 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens having their three-game winning streak snapped in a 27-24 loss to Kansas City, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Depending on your perspective, an overtime defeat to the AFC’s best team can be viewed as a moral victory or the “same old Ravens” with a highly-ranked defense wilting late, but it’s tough not to lament a missed opportunity with Pittsburgh losing and other wild-card contenders winning.

2. After the defense did an impressive job against Patrick Mahomes for much of the game, his fourth-and-9 wizardry was more a greater of him being the best player on the field than a colossal collapse from the Ravens like last year against Cincinnati. Sometimes you just have to accept that.

3. Playing in one of the most difficult road environments in the NFL, Lamar Jackson showed poise and ranked fifth in ESPN’s total QBR metric for Week 14. A limited passing game remains a concern, but the rookie made some key throws, none bigger than his go-ahead touchdown to John Brown.

4. Matt Judon was the best Raven on the field as he registered a sack, five quarterback hits, and 10 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. His second-half surge has been critical for both the present and future with Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith scheduled to become free agents.

5. Between Marlon Humphrey being late lining up over Tyreek Hill and Eric Weddle failing to tackle Hill to prevent the first down, I found Kansas City’s third-and-19 conversion late in the first half to be a bigger gaffe than the aforementioned fourth down. It led to a Chiefs touchdown, too.

6. It’s difficult to predict how much change this roster might endure this offseason, but improving at the safety position figures to be fairly high on the priority list. It wasn’t a stellar day for Weddle or Chuck Clark, who at least recorded Baltimore’s first interception in over two months.

7. Kenneth Dixon was as impressive running the ball as he’s looked since his rookie season, rushing for a touchdown and 59 yards on just eight carries. You just keep your fingers crossed that he’ll stay healthy now.

8. Perhaps Jackson’s most impressive play of the game was his scramble drill resulting in a dump-off to Dixon for a 21-yard reception on a first-and-20 situation early in the second half. That play would have been a sack or incompletion for all but maybe a couple quarterbacks in the league.

9. Remember how mediocre the special teams were in the first half of the season? The Ravens now rank fifth in Football Outsiders’ latest season ratings. Cyrus Jones’ return ability has played a big role in that, but the rest of the group has tightened up as well.

10. The Ravens didn’t attempt a pass on first down until the first play of the second half and did it just five times total. Why’s that unusual? One of the biggest cries from the analytics community is to pass more frequently on first down. Again, zigging while everyone else zags.

11. Suggs played a season-high 70 snaps and registered a half-sack, another quarterback hit, and a pass breakup. The 36-year-old has played well of late, but that workload has to be concerning. Meanwhile, Tyus Bowser saw only 14 snaps and Tim Williams was essentially a healthy scratch.

12. Many hoped Jackson playing quarterback might jump-start fellow first-round pick Hayden Hurst, but the rookie tight end failed to register a catch for the second straight week. This shouldn’t be shocking given his early-season foot injury and the recent history of rookie tight ends, but it’s no less disappointing.

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 03 November 2018 by Luke Jones

Rarely has a Week 9 game felt so important for the Ravens.

A win over Pittsburgh snaps a two-game slide and leaves Baltimore in solid shape in the AFC North entering their much-needed bye week. A loss leaves the Ravens under .500 at the bye for the fourth straight year and needing to win five of their final seven games just to finish with a 9-7 record — familiar territory — while outside talk of wholesale changes will only grow louder in the off-week.

They understand what’s at stake, but focusing too much on the big picture is a slippery slope, especially when playing against the Steelers.

“When you worry about the outcome of things before it has actually happened, that’s when you start making mistakes,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “That’s when you start playing tentative.”

It’s time to go on the record as these division rivals meet for the 50th time — counting the postseason — with Pittsburgh owning a 27-22 advantage. Including the playoffs, the series is tied 12-12 in the John Harbaugh era with 17 of those contests decided by a single possession. A victory would give the Ravens their fourth season sweep of the Steelers in their 23-year history.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. First-round rookies Hayden Hurst and Lamar Jackson will each score a touchdown. Hurst grew up a Steelers fan and was drafted by the Pirates, making him eager to make his mark after sitting out the first meeting. The Ravens must start seeing a return for their first pick in this year’s draft, and Pittsburgh has struggled to defend tight ends this season. Meanwhile, a good Steelers run defense and multiple injuries along the offensive line should compel offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg to use Jackson more than usual to gain yardage on the ground and keep some pressure off Flacco.

2. Flacco will be sacked a season-high five times behind a patchwork offensive line. The 11th-year quarterback has played some of his best football against Pittsburgh over the years, but the absence of Ronnie Stanley and James Hurst leaves the Ravens in a tough spot against a defense that has 24 sacks in 2018. Baltimore will use plenty of max protect, but that will allow the Steelers to devote more attention to John Brown. The key to moving the ball will be quick throws over the middle of the field, but Pittsburgh rushers T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward, and Bud Dupree will still be licking their chops.

3. The Baltimore defense will force its first second-half turnover since Week 4. The consensus message from players and coaches this week was that the takeaways will come, but the Ravens have only seven through their first eight games and really could have used one trying to protect a 10-point fourth-quarter lead against New Orleans or to spark a comeback against Carolina. Wink Martindale’s defense did a good job confusing Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the first meeting and will need more of the same to set up a struggling Baltimore offense on a short field.

4. JuJu Smith-Schuster and Vance McDonald will catch touchdowns for the Steelers. Much like the Steelers defense, the Ravens are most vulnerable over the middle, which is problematic against Smith-Schuster in the slot and a capable pair of tight ends in McDonald and Jesse James. That area of the field is even more concerning as inside linebacker C.J. Mosley and safety Tony Jefferson deal with injuries. A returning Marlon Humphrey makes you feel better about keeping Antonio Brown from wrecking the game, but the linebackers and safeties must rebound from a poor showing in Carolina.

5. The banged-up Ravens will suffer their third straight loss in a 23-17 final. Harbaugh expressed confidence Friday that his offensive line is healthy enough to win the game, and I fully expect his team to battle after last week’s clunker against the Panthers. However, Jermaine Eluemunor being trusted to block Flacco’s blindside is a scary proposition, and this offensive line hasn’t been effective enough in the run game to alleviate pressure in the pocket. On the flip side, the Ravens defense is also banged up and facing a Pittsburgh offense averaging just under 30 points per game. Playing at home will help, but 10 of the 24 Ravens-Steelers contests since 2008 have been won by the visitor and these teams have been moving in opposite directions since Week 4. I just haven’t seen enough of an “it” factor from the Ravens to believe they’ll overcome their current injuries and get the job done against a tough foe.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 24-23 loss to New Orleans

Posted on 23 October 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens falling to 4-3 in their 24-23 loss to New Orleans, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Jimmy Smith played poorly in his first start with Marlon Humphrey sidelined, but some criticism was over the top. Being suspended didn’t change the reality of him coming back from a torn Achilles, an injury that takes time for someone to return to previous form. Michael Thomas is also terrific.

2. Especially with the Saints down to their third-string left guard during Sunday’s game, you’d like to see the pass rush manage more than one sack and three quarterback hits. It’s very tough to beat a great offensive team without more disruption in the pocket or a game-changing turnover.

3. I’m all for trying to keep opponents guessing, but eight different Ravens running the ball at least once Sunday says plenty about the current state of a ground attack that ranks 31st in the NFL in yards per carry. The only team worse (Arizona) just fired its offensive coordinator.

4. Of the 16 times running backs carried the ball, 10 went for two or fewer yards and only one netted a first down. I’d be much more interested in upgrading the offensive line before the trade deadline, but exploring other running backs should be a consideration as well.

5. Both Drew Brees and Sean Payton talked about the 20-play opening drive setting the tone and allowing the Saints to jump ahead in time of possession despite not scoring. The Ravens defense surrendered only seven points through three quarters, but that long series took a toll later in the game.

6. Of course, that drive would have ended quickly had the special teams stopped a fake punt attempt after what looked like an initial three-and-out. I’m a big Jerry Rosburg guy, but there have been too many lapses with multiple special-teams units this season.

7. Coming off two quiet games, John Brown made seven catches for 134 yards — season highs — and a touchdown. Considering he caught all seven targets, why not go to him even more, especially in the first two fourth-quarter drives when he was thrown to just once for 17 yards?

8. Mark Andrews caught a touchdown Sunday, but tight ends have combined for 11 receptions for 84 yards over the last three games. Nick Boyle and Maxx Williams are helping offensive tackles in pass protection, but you want more when dressing four tight ends. Hayden Hurst needs to be more involved.

9. Lamar Jackson’s usage continues to be debated, but it was good seeing him pass in a third-down situation, something the Ravens must be willing to do if he’s going to play. His first NFL touchdown on a read-option run was a great example of how to properly use him.

10. I agreed with kicking the extra point, but there would have been at least an argument to go for the win if the Ravens had a running game. I wouldn’t have loved their chances in overtime after Brees had carved up the defense on three straight drives. Challenge traditional thinking.

11. The Ravens are 8-13 in games decided by a single possession since the start of 2016 and dropped to 0-2 this season. Common sense would tell you a playoff-hopeful team should be .500 or better in this department. Fourth quarters like Sunday’s have loomed large.

12. The debut of the purple-on-purple uniform — non-“Color Rush” edition — was the sixth different combination used by the Ravens since the start of the preseason, and they haven’t even worn their black alternates or the aforementioned purple tops with gold numbering yet. Watch out, Oregon.

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Ravens-Titans: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 13 October 2018 by Luke Jones

A stretch of three consecutive road games concludes Sunday with the Ravens having the chance to position themselves favorably in the AFC and put last week’s ugly loss in Cleveland behind them.

A win puts Baltimore at 4-2 with four of the next five games coming at home — albeit against some tough competition — but a loss creates more doubts about this year being any different from the last couple in which Baltimore fell short of the playoffs.

It’s time to go on the record as these onetime AFC Central rivals meet for the 20th time in the all-time regular-season series with Tennessee holding a 10-9 advantage. The Ravens are 2-3 against the Titans in the John Harbaugh era — counting their dramatic 13-10 road win in the 2008 postseason — and Tennessee won last year’s Week 9 meeting at Nissan Stadium, a 23-20 final.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Alex Collins will set a season high in rushing yards in a workmanlike effort. The Tennessee defense ranks eighth in the NFL in yards per play and tied for third in points per game surrendered, but the Titans are banged up at linebacker and are vulnerable to the run (4.4 yards per attempt allowed) when opponents have shown some patience. The Ravens must be more consistent getting positive yards — eight of the 20 carries split between Collins and Buck Allen went for no gain or worse last week — but Marty Mornhinweg can’t be so quick to bail on the running game.

2. Running back Dion Lewis will lead the Titans in receptions. Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota appears to be over his early-season elbow injury, but he’s averaging just 6.6 yards per attempt and will need to be selective in his attempts to push the ball down the field against a pass defense allowing an NFL-low 5.9 yards per attempt. That will lead to opportunities for Lewis, who has 21 catches on the season. The Ravens will try to counter that by frequently using Anthony Levine in the dime package, but Lewis will find some room against Baltimore linebackers underneath and in the flat.

3. The Baltimore defense will force two turnovers to frustrate Mariota and the Tennessee offense. Trying to poke too many holes in a defense that allowed only 12 points in 70 minutes of play last week is unfair, but the Ravens surprisingly have only six takeaways through their first five games after leading the league last year and only forced one against a rookie quarterback last week. Mariota will try to force some intermediate-to-deep throws to former first-round pick Corey Davis, but Jimmy Smith now having a game under his belt makes the Ravens secondary that much more dangerous.

4. Titans defensive tackle Jurrell Casey will collect a sack and be disruptive much of the day. Casey is easily Tennessee’s best defensive player and is one of the best defensive tackles in the league, meaning the Ravens better be prepared to give Alex Lewis and Matt Skura as much help as they can. Baltimore will run away from Casey and roll the pocket away from him at times, but he’s fully capable of taking over like Cincinnati defensive tackle Geno Atkins did in Week 2. Space on inside runs will certainly be at a premium, but the Ravens have had more success running to the perimeter anyway. 

5. A late Joe Flacco touchdown pass to Hayden Hurst will be the difference in a 20-13 win. What better way to win against Dean Pees than to break through in the fourth quarter against his strong Titans defense? Flacco is excited to involve the first-round tight end in the offense as he’s a fan of Hurst’s skill set, and the rookie should be more comfortable in his second NFL game. Ravens defenders said all the right things about their former defensive coordinator this week and hold no animosity, but they’re motivated to show they’re better than ever with more freedom and flexibility under Wink Martindale than they had with Pees. This is an AFC separator game the Ravens could really use, and they’ll get the job done despite it not being all that pretty at times.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 12-9 overtime loss at Cleveland

Posted on 09 October 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens falling to 3-2 following the ugly 12-9 overtime loss to Cleveland, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Baltimore has had past performances like Sunday’s at FirstEnergy Stadium, but the difference was you could always count on a lousy football team to “Brown” it up at the most critical moment. The Browns were far from perfect, but Baker Mayfield clearly makes them a better team.

2. You hate criticizing a group that surrendered only 12 points, but the two-minute defense left a lot to be desired, allowing a 78-yard touchdown drive at the end of the first half, a 38-yard drive in the final minute of regulation, and the 65-yard game-ending drive in overtime.

3. Had anyone heard of Derrick Willies before his 39-yard reception on third-and-8 in overtime? The rookie free agent caught a combined 40 passes in three collegiate seasons at Texas Tech and Iowa and hadn’t caught an NFL pass before the fourth quarter.

4. Arguably worse was Duke Johnson’s 15-yard run on the next play that put the Browns at the Baltimore 28. It was a less-than-stellar showing from Tyus Bowser and C.J. Mosley on that run since Cleveland kicker Greg Joseph wasn’t inspiring any confidence that he’d make a longer kick.

5. I’ve written extensively about the running game this week, but Lamar Jackson leads the team in yards per carry (min. 15 rushes), making it understandable why the Ravens want to keep him involved. Still, bringing him on the field for an inside rush on first-and-16 in overtime made little sense.

6. The defense recorded five sacks and a total of 27 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. The Ravens allowed Mayfield to escape the pocket a few times, but the pass rush bounced back from a quiet performance in Pittsburgh. Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith were particularly good in that area.

7. Joe Flacco was among those complaining about the illegal block in the back call on Chris Moore that wiped away Alex Collins’ 17-yard run in overtime, but it was avoidable just like Matt Judon’s that canceled out a touchdown against Denver. You have to see what you’re hitting.

8. Anthony Levine continues to play terrific football after recording three pass breakups for the second straight week. He’s a good example of how using creativity with sub packages can work to your advantage. Levine isn’t a pure safety, linebacker, or cornerback, but he’s a good football player.

9. John Harbaugh acknowledged not planning to use Willie Henry for 39 defensive snaps in his return from August hernia surgery, but he played well, registering a sack and another tackle. He provides another inside pass-rushing option to rotate with Smith and Brent Urban.

10. The Ravens lead the NFL in scoring defense and rank in the top five in a number of other categories, but they’ve recorded just six takeaways in their first five games after having 10 in the first two contests last year. I suspect that’s going to change sooner than later.

11. Browns cornerback Denzel Ward was responsible for taking as many as 10 points off the board from the Ravens with his goal-line interception and field goal block. He, Mayfield, and defensive end Myles Garrett sure look poised to make Cleveland an interesting team over the next few years.

12. Watching a 9-9 contest in the final seconds of overtime brought memories of the only tie in Ravens history, which came against Philadelphia at Memorial Stadium on Nov. 16, 1997. I recall leaving that day as fans from both teams argued over which team stunk more. Both finished 6-9-1.

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Critical question comes into focus during Ravens’ ugly loss

Posted on 07 October 2018 by Luke Jones

Michael Crabtree had the chance to rewrite the story of a poor performance for both him and the Ravens offense in Cleveland on Sunday.

His third-down drop on the opening drive of the game had cost the Ravens a chance at a long field goal or a fourth-and-short situation inside the 40-yard line. On the next drive, he dropped a slant on a second-and-3 that would have put the offense inside the red zone and instead led the Ravens to settle for a field goal two plays later. Those were just two of many mistakes made by an offense that arrived at FirstEnergy Stadium flying high after a 3-1 start to 2018.

Still, with a minute to go in regulation and the Ravens trailing 9-6, Crabtree could have made it all better.

Signed to a three-year, $21 million contract in large part for the 25 touchdowns he’d caught over the previous three seasons in Oakland, Crabtree dropped a perfect pass from Joe Flacco in the back of the end zone on third-and-10 from the Cleveland 14. Instead of taking a 13-9 lead and likely stealing an ugly road win, the Ravens settled for the game-tying three points before eventually falling 12-9 on a Greg Joseph 37-yard field goal with two seconds left in overtime.

As much as last week’s win in Pittsburgh looked like a potential breakthrough for a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2014, Sunday felt like an all-too-familiar story for an offense that couldn’t live up to its end of the bargain. And it brought a lingering question about the Ravens’ passing game into sharper focus.

So much had been made about the balanced production for Baltimore’s wide receivers, tight ends, and running backs with eight or more players having caught passes in each of the first four games. Entering Sunday, eight players were on pace to catch 30 or more passes after only five Ravens made 30 or more receptions a year ago. Spreading the ball around is great when you’re clicking like the Ravens did over the season’s opening month, but it won’t always be that easy as we witnessed against an improved Browns defense.

When you’re struggling as Flacco and the offense did on Sunday, you need that safety net — “old reliable” if you will — to bail everyone out at the most critical moment. Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin, and Steve Smith fit that description to varying degrees over the last decade, making the play no one else was able to make at the most critical times. After not having that guy last season — Mike Wallace did his best down the stretch — the Ravens tabbed Crabtree to be that go-to target on third downs and inside the red zone. He didn’t need to be a 1,000-yard receiver, but they wanted him to handle the dirty work.

Instead, he entered Week 5 tied for the league lead in drops before adding three more against the Browns. He’s caught just 24 of his 46 targets in five games, the lowest percentage of his 10-year career. The slow start comes after Crabtree caught 58 passes for 618 receiving yards last season, his lowest totals since an injury-abbreviated 2013 campaign.

That’s not to say he won’t regroup to fill that intended role, but Flacco needs someone on which to lean in crunch time of close games. The speedy John Brown has been his most productive receiver, of course, but he’s more home-run hitter than the guy you’re targeting on third-and-7, at least based on how the Ravens have used him to this point. If it isn’t Crabtree, perhaps slot receiver Willie Snead or even rookie tight end Hayden Hurst eventually becomes that guy to make contested catches and move the chains when it matters most.

Someone has to do it if the Ravens expect a different result the next time they’re fighting for their lives late in a game. It’s a position they weren’t in during their three double-digit wins, but they’re sure to be in that tight spot again sooner than later.

To be clear, the Ravens wasted other opportunities as an ugly Flacco interception at the goal line cost them points in the second quarter, a Justin Tucker field goal was blocked at the end of the first half, and a Buck Allen fumble led to a Cleveland field goal midway through the third quarter. Baltimore didn’t really deserve a win after playing so poorly on the offensive side of the ball, but no play was bigger than Crabtree’s last-minute drop that could have made all those missteps — including the veteran receiver’s own — disappear.

There was other blame to go around, but that was the exact moment for which Baltimore had signed him in March.

Instead of escaping Cleveland with a victory, the Ravens offense took a step back and left a critical question unanswered for the coming weeks.

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Ravens-Browns: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 07 October 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens aim for their best five-game start since 2012 and will do so with first-round rookie tight end Hayden Hurst making his NFL debut in Cleveland.

The 25th overall pick of the 2018 draft underwent surgery for a stress fracture in his foot on Aug. 24 and is active after missing the first four weeks of the regular season. Hurst returned to the practice field on Sept. 26 and is apparently ready to go despite still being listed as a limited participant all week. Hurst’s arrival further strengthens a tight ends group that surprisingly ranks fourth in the NFL in receiving yards (321) and second in receptions (31) through the first four weeks, according to Pro Football Focus.

After being activated on Saturday, cornerback Jimmy Smith will make his season debut after serving a four-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. Smith is also making his return from last year’s torn Achilles tendon and will see his first action since Dec. 3. With rookie cornerback Darious Williams being waived to make room for Smith and rookie Anthony Averett again out with a hamstring injury, the Ravens will have just four healthy cornerbacks against the Browns, but dime back Anthony Levine and reserve safety Chuck Clark are capable of playing the nickel in certain packages.

The bad news is the deactivation of defensive tackle Michael Pierce, who suffered a setback with a lingering foot issue late in the week and missed practice on Friday. Pierce sat out Week 3 with a foot injury before playing against Pittsburgh last Sunday night. His absence is not an encouraging development with the Browns ranking second in the NFL in rushing yards per game.

With Pierce out, defensive tackle Willie Henry (hernia surgery) will make his season debut despite only returning to practice on a limited basis this week. Comments from coaches this week suggested the Ravens likely would have preferred holding him out one more game, but Pierce’s health certainly forced the issue.

Outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith (hamstring) is active after being listed as questionable on the injury report, but he didn’t appear to be 100 percent during Friday’s practice, which is something to monitor during Sunday’s game.

There were no surprises among the Cleveland inactives as reserve linebacker James Burgess (knee) was ruled out on Friday. Starting safety Damarious Randall (heel) and starting outside linebacker Christian Kirksey (illness) will play after being designated as questionable.

The referee for Sunday’s game is Clay Martin.

According to Weather.com, the Sunday forecast in Cleveland calls for cloudy skies and temperatures near 70 degrees with winds 10 to 15 miles per hour and a 20-percent chance of rain.

The Ravens are wearing white jerseys with white pants while Cleveland is donning its all-brown “Color Rush” look previously seen for Thursday Night Football in Week 3.

Sunday marks the 39th all-time meeting between these AFC North teams with Baltimore holding an overwhelming 29-9 advantage. The Ravens have won five straight meetings and are an overwhelming 18-2 against the Browns in the John Harbaugh era.

Below are Sunday’s inactives:

BALTIMORE
QB Robert Griffin III
WR Jordan Lasley
CB Anthony Averett
OLB Tim Williams
OL Hroniss Grasu
DL Zach Sieler
DL Michael Pierce

CLEVELAND
QB Drew Stanton
WR Damion Ratley
CB Denzel Rice
CB Tavierre Thomas
LB James Burgess
OL Earl Watford
DL Chad Thomas

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