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Ravens regular-season moment No. 2: “We know what kind of quarterback we have”

Posted on 26 June 2020 by Luke Jones

Check out the No. 3 regular-season moment in Ravens history HERE.

The Ravens had clobbered Pittsburgh in the 2011 opener in Baltimore.

But that didn’t matter now as they traveled to Heinz Field to take on a Steelers team that had won four straight entering November. A loss would drop the Ravens to third place behind both Pittsburgh and surprising Cincinnati in the AFC North, making their Week 9 clash on Sunday Night Football a crucial one.

Doubts about quarterback Joe Flacco persisted despite his comeback win in Pittsburgh the previous year as the Ravens had lost their home rematch in December — costing themselves the AFC North and a first-round bye in the process — and had blown a 14-point halftime lead in the their 2010 divisional-round defeat to the Steelers. Flacco was far from the only reason the Ravens lost those games, but he hadn’t played particularly well in some key moments as questions continued about his ability to lead his team to a championship. A stretch of lackluster performances in October hadn’t helped perceptions either.

The game started with a bang as Ray Rice took an inside hand-off, cut left, and galloped 76 yards for an apparent touchdown on the first play from scrimmage, reminiscent of the way the Ravens had begun the Week 1 blowout win. However, rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith was flagged for holding, negating the score and setting the tone for what would be a defensive battle for much of the night. The teams combined for five field goals in the first half with Billy Cundiff’s 51-yarder sending the Ravens to the locker room with a 9-6 lead at intermission.

The Steelers drove to the Baltimore red zone on the first drive of the second half before 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs intercepted Ben Roethlisberger’s pass in the short flat. With that turnover, the Ravens methodically moved down the field and took advantage of a 23-yard pass interference penalty as Rice’s 4-yard touchdown run increased the lead to 16-6 with 4:27 remaining in the third quarter.

The Steelers weren’t going away, however, as Roethlisberger bounced back from his mistake to lead an 11-play, 80-yard drive resulting in a 1-yard touchdown run for Rashard Mendenhall to make it 16-13 early in the fourth quarter.

The Ravens then marched to the Pittsburgh 36 before an all-too-familiar feeling of dread returned. On third-and-8, Pro Bowl outside linebacker James Harrison sacked Flacco, forcing a fumble that was recovered by the Steelers. Moving to the Baltimore 25 on five plays, Roethlisberger scrambled right on third-and-5 and found Mike Wallace in the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown with 4:59 to play.

On the ensuing possession, three straight Flacco incompletions resulted in a punt that Steelers receiver Antonio Brown returned to his own 46. The Ravens were in serious trouble as Pittsburgh had the ball, good field position, and a 20-16 lead with 4:30 remaining.

After converting a big third down, the Steelers moved into field-goal range before making a costly error. On fourth-and-5 from the 29, indecisiveness struck the Pittsburgh sideline as Roethlisberger initially lobbied to go for the first down and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was late sending kicker Shaun Suisham onto the field, resulting in a delay of game. With Suisham kicking into the tricky open end of Heinz Field, a 47-yard attempt would have been far from a sure thing, but the penalty instead prompted a Jeremy Kapinos punt that pinned the Ravens back at their own 8-yard line.

Ninety-two yards were needed with just 2:24 and one timeout remaining, a far more difficult position than the previous fall when Flacco had found T.J. Houshmandzadeh for the game-winner in Pittsburgh.

A 21-yard completion over the middle to Anquan Boldin got the Ravens out of the shadow of their own end zone at the two-minute warning. A 13-yard sideline strike to seldom-used undrafted rookie LaQuan Williams moved them to their own 42. A few plays later, Baltimore faced a fourth-and-1 from the Pittsburgh 49 when Flacco again found Boldin over the middle for 10 yards to extend the game.

But that’s when the drive began going sideways. On second-and-8 from the 37, Flacco escaped pressure, climbed the pocket, and threw deep to a wide-open Smith, who dropped the ball in the end zone. Boldin would catch the third-down pass to move the chains on the next snap, but the veteran receiver then dropped a perfect throw over the middle that would have moved the Ravens inside the 10.

As Cris Collinsworth remarked on the NBC broadcast, “Joe Flacco is doing a great job on this drive, and his receivers are completely letting him down.”

Facing third-and-10 from the 26, Flacco and the Ravens still had a timeout, but only 16 seconds remained. Undeterred by Smith’s drop moments earlier, Flacco threw deep to the sideline as the second-round rookie gave a veteran-like nudge to Steelers cornerback William Gay and caught the redemptive touchdown with eight seconds to go.

There was instant silence in Pittsburgh. In a throwback rivalry in which the most defining moments had always gone the other way, the Ravens finally enjoyed theirs in the national spotlight.

The 23-20 win proved to be the difference in the Ravens winning their first division title in five years and clinching a first-round bye. But it meant more than that for Flacco, who had orchestrated the most brilliant drive of his career. The touchdown pass in Pittsburgh the previous year had flashed his late-game ability, but leading a 92-yard march in a Sunday night road game against his biggest adversary was special, especially considering the aforementioned drops and the celebrated Ravens defense had given up 14 points in the final quarter.

No, Flacco wasn’t Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, or Peyton Manning and never would be, but he had touched greatness when it mattered most. And while the misfortunes of Cundiff and Lee Evans 2 1/2 months later in New England meant the Ravens would wait another year to finally taste Super Bowl glory, that 2011 win in Pittsburgh eliminated any doubt that such a postseason run was possible, whether Flacco’s critics wanted to admit it or not.

“Maybe people will stop putting him down now. We know what kind of quarterback we have,” Boldin said after the season-sweeping win over the Steelers. “There was no panic with our offense, and I think you saw that. A lot of it starts with our quarterback. He was real poised.”

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Twelve Ravens thoughts on training camp preparations and other topics

Posted on 10 June 2020 by Luke Jones

With Ravens coaches returning to the Owings Mills headquarters this week and the NFL releasing protocols for training facilities, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The July 28 report date for training camp is seven weeks away, but much work remains regarding COVID-19 protocols. The recent expansion and renovations of the team facility helps, but spacing lockers six feet apart for a 90-man roster will be quite a challenge by itself.

2. NFL Network’s report on the possibility of the preseason schedule being shortened was hardly a surprise since there was growing support for that long before the pandemic. The bigger question might be whether that sparks permanent change to the exhibition schedule.

3. Pittsburgh moving its camp to Heinz Field raises a fair question for teams that already struggled to find space for 90 players before even factoring in social distancing. A shorter preseason makes you wonder if that high number is absolutely necessary if you want to minimize health risks. Difficult questions.

4. Patrick Queen, Devin Duvernay, and Malik Harrison are the only 2020 Ravens draft picks yet to sign, but we’re approaching the time when you’d expect those rookie deals to get done. Of course, the pandemic could always complicate that timing.

5. Social media hardly provides a complete picture of the work so many players are putting in right now, but James Proche has logged recent workouts with Lamar Jackson, Robert Griffin III, and Trace McSorley. Good for the sixth-round rookie wide receiver getting acquainted with Baltimore quarterbacks.

6. You won’t find a more respected person in the organization than tight ends coach Bobby Engram, who was nominated for the PFWA’s George Halas Award for overcoming adversity to succeed. I recommend this piece from The Athletic’s Jeff Zrebiec if you’re unfamiliar with the Engram family’s story.

7. The value of the return specialist isn’t what it used to be due to rule changes in the game, but I can’t recall the last time we weren’t talking about that spot being a question mark around this time of year. The days of Jacoby Jones?

8. In contrast, Sam Koch is the only player to have any punts for the Ravens since 2006 and Justin Tucker is the only one to make a field goal since 2012. That continuity is just remarkable compared to most teams. Tennessee had four different kickers last season alone.

9. We’ve talked so much about inside linebacker the last couple years that I couldn’t help but notice Ravens coaching analyst and former player Zach Orr celebrated his 28th birthday on Tuesday. He thankfully escaped football without serious injury, but you wonder how much better he might have become.

10. Dick Cass, Ed Reed, Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith, Ray Rice, Steve Smith, Calais Campbell, and Queen were among the current and former Ravens joining over 1,400 sports figures in signing a letter to Congress requesting an end to qualified immunity. I applaud them for making their voices heard.

11. Have you ever imagined what might have happened if Baltimore signed Colin Kaepernick? Does he replace a Joe Flacco who had a bad back in 2017? Reunited with Greg Roman, does Kaepernick thrive and keep the starting job? Does Lamar Jackson then wind up elsewhere? Quite the potential butterfly effect.

12. Kudos to the Ravens for putting out the following video for high school and college graduates. We all had different school experiences, but I can’t imagine not being able to enjoy those final weeks or to celebrate these accomplishments with friends and family.

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Ravens regular-season moment No. 11: Saluting Heinz Field

Posted on 05 June 2020 by Luke Jones

Check out the No. 12 regular-season moment in Ravens history HERE.

Before there was “January Joe,” real questions persisted about Joe Flacco’s ability to lead the Ravens to a Super Bowl.

His rookie season brought encouraging signs and easily cleared the low bar of the Kyle Boller era, but Flacco was mostly along for the ride as a terrific defense and a bruising rushing attack led the 2008 Ravens to an AFC Championship game appearance. His play took a substantial step forward in the 2009 regular season, but a Week 17 hip injury severely hampered him in January as he threw three interceptions and no touchdowns in two playoff games.

Even the start of the 2010 season was rough as Flacco threw five interceptions over the first two games, making a Week 4 trip to Pittsburgh feel like a pivotal test in the third-year quarterback’s development. Winless at Heinz Field since 2006, the Ravens were taking on a Steelers team that was 3-0 despite backup quarterback Charlie Batch filling in for the suspended Ben Roethlisberger. If Baltimore couldn’t come away with a win in Pittsburgh this time around, you wondered when it would ever happen for Flacco and third-year head coach John Harbaugh.

But anything can go in the Ravens-Steelers rivalry as a defensive struggle ensued.

With the Ravens trailing 14-10 after a Rashard Mendenhall touchdown run midway through the final quarter, Flacco had the opportunity to make his mark and quiet his doubters. Thanks in large part to completions of 21, 11, 10, and 11 yards, the Ravens had two shots from the Pittsburgh 2 to take the lead with less than three minutes to play.

On third-and-goal, Flacco’s pass to a blanketed Derrick Mason was broken up at the goal line. After a timeout, the Baltimore quarterback then threw incomplete to Anquan Boldin, turning the ball over on downs with 2:40 left and only one timeout remaining. Flacco and the Ravens looked like they would come up short in Pittsburgh yet again.

But instead of sulking over the offense’s inability to put the ball in the end zone, the Baltimore defense stuffed Mendenhall on three consecutive runs to force the Steelers to punt from their own 3. A Pittsburgh holding penalty on Daniel Sepulveda’s 47-yard punt gave the Ravens possession at the Steelers’ 40 with 1:08 remaining. It was the latest miscue in a mistake-prone game for Pittsburgh that included two missed field goals by Jeff Reed to keep the Ravens within striking distance.

If not now, then when?

Flacco connected on three straight passes to put the ball on the 18 with 37 seconds remaining. On the next play with Ray Rice and Todd Heap picking up a blindside blitz perfectly, Flacco pumped and hit veteran wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh in stride in the back of the end zone for the touchdown. Houshmandzadeh — the former Cincinnati Bengal who had just joined the Ravens a few weeks earlier — saluted a stunned Pittsburgh crowd while the normally stoic Flacco pumped his fist in celebration.

The Ravens defense finished it off with a Ray Lewis interception on the Steelers’ next play from scrimmage to give Flacco and Harbaugh their first win in Pittsburgh.

Of course, the moment didn’t transform the young quarterback into “January Joe” overnight as Flacco would experience some more hiccups and the Ravens would suffer another crushing playoff defeat at Heinz Field a few months later. But the touchdown to Houshmandzadeh showed what the Delaware product could do in a critical moment against the toughest of opponents on the road.

“I think there are going to be a lot of defining moments for Joe, but this is going to be one of them,” Harbaugh said after the dramatic 17-14 win to improve his team’s record to 3-1 on the season. “This is going to be one that all the Ravens fans are going to remember for a long time.”

The best was yet to come.

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New chapter upon us in old Ravens-Steelers rivalry

Posted on 04 October 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Lamar Jackson wasn’t even born yet when the Ravens played the Pittsburgh Steelers for the first time, reminding how long this rivalry has now existed.

It transformed from early Pittsburgh dominance to hostile nastiness to begrudging respect in quite possibly the NFL’s best rivalry over the last two decades. The annual meetings have become downright civil compared to the days of Ray Lewis, Chris McAlister, Hines Ward, Joey Porter, and so many others exchanging barbs off the field and violent hits on it.

If we’re being honest, the rivalry has aged in recent years with the 2016 Christmas Day game — a painful memory for Baltimore — being the most notable encounter. That’s not to say the games are any less competitive — 11 of the last 16 overall meetings have been decided by one score — but this year marks the first time since 2006 that neither Baltimore-Pittsburgh affair was scheduled for prime time if we’re including that nationally-televised Christmas meeting three years ago. Sunday’s encounter is the first time since 2013 these teams will meet in Pittsburgh for a run-of-the-mill afternoon game.

This AFC North rivalry inevitably cooled with the retirements of legends such as Lewis, Ward, Ed Reed, and Troy Polamalu, but this offseason brought the departures of Terrell Suggs, Joe Flacco, Antonio Brown, and Le’Veon Bell from their respective teams. Sunday will mark the first Ravens-Steelers game not including any of Suggs, Flacco, or Ben Roethlisberger — who’s out for the year with an elbow injury — since the final game of the 2002 season when Jeff Blake and Tommy Maddox were the quarterbacks and Todd Heap and Amos Zereoue were the standout performers of the day.

Only nine current Ravens were with the organization the last time these teams met in the playoffs five years ago, but one of them — outside linebacker Pernell McPhee in his second stint with Baltimore — offered what felt like a relic this week compared to the tame, respect-filled talk we’ve heard from both sides in recent years.

“We hate each other. I know for sure we hate them. We hate them,” said McPhee, who last played in a Ravens-Steelers game in the 2014 playoffs. “We respect them as men, but we really hate them.

“That’s just how it is. That’s the blood between the teams. It’s like God versus the Devil.”

Those words brought back plenty of fond memories, but the rivalry is now in need of a spark and a new chapter as much as each team could use a win with the Steelers trying to regroup from an 0-3 start and the Ravens aiming to snap their two-game losing streak. We’ve made mention of the “Bizarro” Ravens with a top-shelf offense and a bottom-10 defense so far, but the once-elite Steelers offense is suddenly counting on second-year quarterback Mason Rudolph to lead a group short on play-making ability with Bell now a New York Jet and Brown somewhere in his own little world.

This is when we come back to Jackson, who played a combined 22 snaps as a rookie in last season’s split against the Steelers. He’s rapidly become the face of the franchise since the last time Baltimore played Pittsburgh last November, Flacco’s final start as a Raven. Jackson’s comments on the rivalry and his first start at Heinz Field this week were both refreshing and a reminder of how much things have changed with the influx of youth on both sides.

“They play that little song (“Renegade”), and they wave their little flags and stuff with the little towels around,” Jackson said. “It was pretty dope. I enjoyed it. I did, I really did.”

Off to a terrific start to 2019 with 10 touchdown passes, a 109.4 passer rating, and a combined 1,348 yards through the air and on the ground, Jackson has his first real chance to make his mark against the Steelers after playing little more than a cameo role last season. With their defense reeling after giving up 73 points and 1,033 yards over the last two games, the Ravens need their 22-year-old quarterback to lead the way and give the Steelers fits for the first of what they hope will be many times in the coming years.

There’s no better candidate on either side to become the next star in Ravens-Steelers lore. Baltimore has the overwhelming advantage at the most important position on the field, but we’ve seen the likes of Charlie Batch and Ryan Mallett win games against Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks in this rivalry.

Nothing is guaranteed and you throw out the numbers for this one, but the Ravens need a win to get that “throw-up taste” out of their mouths from last week as McPhee described it. They can drop the Steelers to 1-4 and strengthen the notion of the AFC North being a two-team race with Cleveland. However, a Pittsburgh win gives Mike Tomlin’s team even more life and leaves us wondering if the Ravens are all that good at all.

Even if the rivalry isn’t what it used to be — at least for now — it’s time for Jackson and so many others stepping into larger roles on both sides of the ball to find out what Ravens-Steelers is all about.

“They’re becoming Ravens,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “One of the things that was said in the meeting [Wednesday] is, ‘You’re not a Raven until you beat the Steelers.’ Well, we have some young guys that still need to beat the Steelers.”

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Ravens-Steelers: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 30 September 2018 by Luke Jones

PITTSBURGH — The Ravens and Pittsburgh renew one of the NFL’s greatest rivalries Sunday night while trying to keep up with first-place Cincinnati in the AFC North.

With the Bengals pulling out a last-minute win at Atlanta earlier in the day, Baltimore will attempt to secure its first win at Heinz Field since the 2015 season and remain in a first-place tie through the first quarter of the season.

As expected after practicing fully on Thursday and Friday, inside linebacker C.J. Mosley (knee) and defensive tackle Michael Pierce (foot) are active and will play after sitting out the Week 3 win over Denver. Cornerback Brandon Carr (knee), defensive back Anthony Levine (hamstring), left tackle Ronnie Stanley (foot), and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (knee) will also play after all were listed as questionable. Suggs was limited in practices all week, but the 16th-year linebacker wasn’t about to miss a chance to renew his personal rivalry with Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Rookie tight end Hayden Hurst’s NFL debut will have to wait another week as he was deactivated after practicing on a limited basis all week. The first-round pick was sidelined more than a month after sustaining a stress fracture in his foot in late August, and the Ravens are being cautious in easing him back into the picture. Hurst went through a pre-game workout with the other tight ends before the inactives list was released 90 minutes prior to kickoff.

Veteran quarterback Robert Griffin III was a healthy scratch for the fourth consecutive game.

As expected, the Steelers have deactivated starting safety Morgan Burnett (groin) and nickel cornerback Mike Hilton (elbow) after they were listed as doubtful on the final injury report.

Sunday’s referee is Tony Corrente.

According to Weather.com, the forecast in Pittsburgh calls for mostly clear skies and temperatures in the high 60s with calm winds up to four miles per hour and no chance of precipitation.

The Ravens are wearing their white jerseys with black pants while Pittsburgh dons black tops with gold pants.

Sunday marks the 45th all-time meeting in the regular season between these AFC North rivals as the Steelers enjoy a 24-20 advantage. Pittsburgh has won three straight after the Ravens had prevailed in the previous four meetings, a stretch that included the 2014 postseason.

Below are Sunday’s inactives:

BALTIMORE
QB Robert Griffin III
WR Jordan Lasley
CB Anthony Averett
OL Hroniss Grasu
DT Willie Henry
TE Hayden Hurst
DL Zach Sieler

PITTSBURGH
QB Mason Rudolph
WR Justin Hunter
S Marcus Allen
CB Mike Hilton
S Morgan Burnett
OT Zach Banner
DE L.T. Walton

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Getting over Pittsburgh road hump would help push Ravens to next level

Posted on 28 September 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — We know what the Ravens-Steelers rivalry is all about.

It’s physical, intense, and ultra competitive with all but six of the 23 games played in the John Harbaugh era — including the postseason — decided by one possession. Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said this week that you don’t earn your “badge of honor” as a Raven until you’ve played in a Pittsburgh game. In an evolving NFL catering more to the offense, this game still evokes that old-school feeling, even as the teams combined to score a whopping 77 points in their most recent showdown last December.

But putting those recycled narratives aside and acknowledging there’s much football to be played after Week 4, the Ravens could really use a win on Sunday night. “Need” is an overused word in the sports realm and doesn’t really apply this week, but a victory at Heinz Field would be as beneficial psychologically as it would be in the standings for a team with some key veterans running out of time and young players needing to grow up quickly.

Despite the predictable claims of every game being important, this one carries more gravity than a another notch in the win or loss column. There’s been too much disappointment in recent years for the Ravens to suggest otherwise.

The Steelers have won three straight over Baltimore for the first time since Harbaugh’s debut season as head coach, and we all witnessed what happened at Heinz Field in each of the last two Decembers. Still, the significance of Sunday’s game goes beyond trying to beat the Steelers, who appear as vulnerable as they’ve been in a while without All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell or much evidence of an effective defense.

There’s the Jimmy Smith narrative that Ravens defensive players are sick of hearing about, but what better way to welcome back their top cornerback from suspension next week than by beating an elite passing attack on the road without him?

It’s much more than just playing without Smith, however. The Ravens need to make a winning statement on the road against an accomplished quarterback at some point if they want to get over the hump and back to the postseason for the first time since 2014. If it isn’t against the Steelers this week, Baltimore is scheduled to deal with the likes of Cam Newton, Matt Ryan, the upstart Patrick Mahomes, and Philip Rivers in away games later this season.

Since their 2014 playoff win over Roethlisberger and the Steelers — only 10 players from that 53-man roster are still with the team (see below) — the Ravens have won just eight away games. The most accomplished quarterback they’ve beaten on the road is Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton, who’s 3-1 against them at Paul Brown Stadium over that time.

The remaining quarterbacks the Ravens have defeated away from M&T Bank Stadium since 2014 are Mike Vick (in his final NFL season), Blake Bortles, EJ Manuel, Brett Hundley, Josh McCown (twice), and DeShone Kizer. Only one of them is currently a starter, and Bortles wasn’t exactly setting the league on fire when the Ravens beat Jacksonville early in the 2016 season.

To be fair, you can’t control your schedule of opponents and blame falls on both sides of the ball in compiling an 8-17 road record over the last three-plus seasons, but no one is taking you seriously as a contender if you can’t beat a top-flight quarterback outside your home stadium from time to time. That’s not too much to ask as we’re talking about a team that won road games over Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in back-to-back weeks on the way to winning a Super Bowl six years ago.

Players have tried to say the right things publicly this week, acknowledging the rivalry while maintaining this one holds no more significance than any other game. Losing on Sunday hardly derails the young season in the same way that winning guarantees nothing, but flying back from western Pennsylvania early Monday morning with another defeat would only extend doubts about the Ravens’ road pedigree with three of the next four away from home still to come.

The Ravens don’t want to find themselves in a similar position to the last two seasons when they’ve needed to play lights out down the stretch to make the playoffs. We know how that turned out.

With better health and improved offensive weapons, Baltimore hopes the balance of power could finally be shifting in the AFC North this season. After a tough loss at Cincinnati on a short week earlier this month, the next litmus test has arrived.

“I look at it as it’s been a great learning experience for us as players and coaches and this organization,” said safety Eric Weddle about the last two heartbreaking losses in Pittsburgh. “As bad as we wanted to win those games, things have come up in those situations and throughout those games that we’ve gotten better from.”

Maybe so, but the Ravens have to prove it at some point.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts on 2018 schedule release

Posted on 20 April 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens unveiling their 2018 regular-season schedule on Thursday night, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Playing four of the first six games on the road is a challenge, but that pales in comparison to 2015 when Baltimore played five of its first seven on the road with four being played out west. The longest trip the Ravens will make over that stretch is to Nashville.

2. This marks the first time the Ravens will play three straight road games since 2008, but that was the result of a rescheduled game in Houston because of Hurricane Ike. They did play three straight road games in 2000, which seemed to work out OK in the end.

3. Not having a prime-time home game is a bummer. Baltimore didn’t host one in 2015 either, but that was the result of two Sunday night games being flexed out during a 5-11 season. This is the first time M&T Bank Stadium hasn’t been originally scheduled to host one since 2008.

4. If you count the nationally-televised Christmas game two years ago, this marks the fifth straight year the Ravens will play a prime-time game in Pittsburgh. The NFL hasn’t scheduled a Ravens-Steelers night game in Baltimore since 2015, and even that one was flexed out. That seems unbalanced.

5. The Ravens haven’t entered their bye week with a winning record since 2014, illustrating how little margin for error they’ve had down the stretch in recent years. John Harbaugh must get his team to start fast despite six of the first nine contests coming against 2017 playoff teams.

6. Don’t forget how dramatically the perception of the schedule can change by the time these games are actually played. Last April, trips to Oakland and Green Bay looked like major challenges, but EJ Manuel and Brett Hundley subbing in for Derek Carr and Aaron Rodgers sure altered that.

7. I couldn’t help but laugh over the Ravens not having a Monday game at all after they finally hosted Monday Night Football for the first time since 2012 last season. Then again, I’m not sure I can blame the league when you recall how lousy that Ravens-Texans contest was.

8. Monday Night Football may not be returning to Baltimore this season, but former ESPN analyst Jon Gruden will be as the Raiders head coach. This is the first time Gruden will coach a game in Baltimore since 2002.

9. The Raiders have become the new Miami as Baltimore meets them for the fourth straight year. Meanwhile, the five-year streak of there being a Ravens-Dolphins game will finally come to an end this season.

10. The Ravens’ first ever trip to Los Angeles should have been one of the most attractive on the schedule for traveling fans, but leave it to the NFL to decide by late October whether it will be played Saturday afternoon, Saturday night, or Sunday afternoon — a couple days before Christmas.

11. It was a good decision moving up the sale of single-game tickets to the night of the schedule release rather than waiting until the summer. The organization needed to be more proactive after the number of empty seats witnessed last season.

12. The hype surrounding the schedule being released is a bit much considering we’ve known the opponents the Ravens would be playing for months, but it brings focus to the anticipation of a new season. Now we know they’ll be kicking off against Buffalo in a mere 142 days.

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Ravens-Steelers: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 10 December 2017 by Luke Jones

PITTSBURGH — One of the greatest rivalries in the NFL is renewed in prime time as the Ravens take on Pittsburgh at Heinz Field.

Needing a victory to remain one game ahead of Buffalo and Los Angeles for the final wild-card spot in the AFC, the Ravens (7-5) are aiming for revenge after the Steelers (10-2) handled them easily in a 26-9 final at M&T Bank Stadium on Oct. 1. Of course, the defense was without defensive tackle Brandon Williams in that game as Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell rushed for 144 yards on 35 carries.

Pittsburgh will clinch the AFC North division title with a win on Sunday night.

Baltimore has officially deactivated outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith, who missed practices all week with a shoulder injury and was designated as doubtful to play. His absence likely means more snaps for rookies Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams in the rotation behind starters Terrell Suggs and Matt Judon.

As expected, wide receiver Jeremy Maclin (back) is active despite being listed as questionable on the final injury report. The veteran missed Thursday’s practice, but he was a full participant a day later as head coach John Harbaugh made it clear that his availability wasn’t in real jeopardy.

Wide receiver Breshad Perriman is a healthy scratch for the third time in four games, the continuation of a nightmare season for the 2015 first-round pick.

Rookie defensive end Chris Wormley is active for the first time since Week 9, giving the Ravens another pass-rushing option in sub packages with Smith unavailable. Rookie cornerback Jaylen Hill is also active for the first time since the Tennessee game as he essentially takes the injured Jimmy Smith’s game-day roster spot.

The Steelers are hurting at inside linebacker with 2016 Pro Bowl selection Ryan Shazier (back) and top backup Tyler Matakevich (shoulder) both ruled out on Friday. As a result, outside linebacker Arthur Moats is expected to shift inside to play next to Vince Williams.

Sunday’s referee is Walt Coleman.

According to Weather.com, the Sunday forecast in Pittsburgh calls for cloudy skies and temperatures in the low 30s with winds averaging around 12 miles per hour and no chance of precipitation.

The Ravens are wearing their white jerseys with black pants, the first time they’ve worn that uniform combination since the Week 3 debacle in London. Pittsburgh will be donning black tops with gold pants.

Sunday marks the 48th overall meeting between these AFC North rivals with the Steelers enjoying a slight 23-20 advantage in the regular season and a 3-1 edge in postseason encounters. The Ravens are trying to avoid being swept by Pittsburgh for the first time since 2008, which was Harbaugh’s first season in Baltimore.

Below are Sunday’s inactives:

BALTIMORE
WR Breshad Perriman
RB Terrance West
CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste
OL Jermaine Eluemunor
OL Maurquice Shakir
LB Za’Darius Smith
DE Bronson Kaufusi

PITTSBURGH
QB Joshua Dobbs
CB Joe Haden
S J.J. Wilcox
LB Tyler Matakevich
LB Ryan Shazier
OT Matt Feiler
DT Daniel McCullers

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“January Joe” needs to arrive early for playoff-hopeful Ravens

Posted on 22 December 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — One gift tops the list of goodies that the Ravens hope to find under their Christmas tree on Sunday.

It would be the early arrival of “January Joe” for their AFC North showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers. That postseason version of Joe Flacco would go a long way in helping Baltimore secure its first AFC North division title since 2012 while also washing away much memory of a trying season.

The issues with the league’s 18th-ranked offense run deeper than the play of the ninth-year quarterback, but the near-certainty of Flacco reaching the 4,000-yard passing mark for the first time — an elusive landmark his critics have regularly used against him over the years — does not mask his struggles. Starting all 14 games in his return from last year’s ACL injury, Flacco ranks 27th in the NFL at just 6.54 yards per attempt and is 25th with an 84.8 passer rating.

Asked about the 2008 first-round pick being on the verge of setting a career high for pass attempts, head coach John Harbaugh declined to assess his quarterback’s play, instead focusing on the task of winning at Heinz Field for the third straight time.

“I respect everything about what he does and how he does it, how he competes and everything like that,” Harbaugh said. “The other stuff [and] the big-picture questions are really for another time. I’m just excited to go play the game on Sunday. I know Joe is and everybody is. We’re preparing and planning on going and playing our best football.”

With the Baltimore defense likely to be without No. 1 cornerback Jimmy Smith, Flacco will need to be at his best to trade blows with Pro Bowl quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and a dangerous Steelers passing game that ranks fifth in the NFL. It’s a story similar to what the Ravens faced in road losses at Dallas and New England earlier this year, but the stakes are much higher now.

In case you’ve forgotten what “January Joe” can do, Flacco has thrown 24 touchdowns and just four interceptions in his last 10 postseason games dating back to the 2010 season. Sunday is as close as it gets to a playoff game — especially if Miami beats Buffalo on Saturday to make it a win-or-bust proposition on Christmas Day — so why wouldn’t the Ravens hope the postseason version of Flacco comes early?

The good news is that the 31-year-old has done it before at Heinz Field, throwing for 259 yards and two touchdowns without an interception in Baltimore’s last postseason win over the Steelers two years ago. Counting that playoff victory, the Ravens have won six of their last seven games against their bitter rival with Flacco throwing nine touchdowns to three interceptions in the six contests in which he played.

Win or lose, history tells us the environment won’t be too big for him and the Ravens. The Steelers look like the better team at this point and are carrying a five-game winning streak into Sunday’s game, but you have to wonder how much Baltimore is in their heads after winning four straight in the series and backup quarterback Ryan Mallett even beating them last December.

Counting the playoffs, the Ravens hold a respectable 5-6 record at Heinz Field in the Harbaugh-Flacco era.

“You picture going into a place and playing in front of 70,000 people that hate you,” Flacco said. “That is what makes it fun. … There are not too many feelings in this world that are better than winning an NFL football game. That probably gets amplified a little bit when you get to silence a crowd.”

Of course, what’s happened in the past doesn’t guarantee success on Sunday. After all, this is a Ravens offense that’s dealt with numerous problems, ranging from play-calling issues and injuries along the offensive line to an up-and-down running game and uneven play at wide receiver and tight end. Flacco’s 13 interceptions are the second-highest total of his career, and he’s been criticized for poor footwork and checking down too frequently in lieu of looking to push the ball down the field.

The Ravens are also facing a Pittsburgh defense that’s improved since the first half of the season, allowing just 14 points per game over its last five contests. The Pittsburgh secondary is relying on a pair of rookies — first-round cornerback Artie Burns and second-round safety and University of Maryland product Sean Davis — but the two have steadily played better as the season has progressed.

This Baltimore offense does have more going for it now than it did for much of the year with a healthier offensive line that’s played better in recent weeks and a running game that produced a season-high 151 yards against Philadelphia last Sunday. Not a single offensive player has missed a practice this week for an injury-related reason, either.

A 38-point outburst and four-touchdown performance from Flacco against Miami three weeks ago showed what this offense is capable of doing when firing on all cylinders, but the peaks have been rare and the valleys all the more frustrating. The Ravens haven’t won a game away from M&T Bank Stadium in three months and their veteran quarterback has posted an ugly 75.7 passer rating on the road this season, making trips to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati to conclude the season an unsettling proposition.

“It is tough to look back at the whole thing, but we have hit our bumps here and there,” Flacco said. “But I think we are starting to hit a stride. When you come out here and watch our practices, you can tell we are starting to hit a stride. This second half of the season, it is coming together with some of the new guys and our offensive line play and myself.”

If the Ravens offense is ever truly going to come together, now is the time.

And the return of “January Joe” needs to be part of the equation.

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Ravens-Steelers: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 01 October 2015 by Luke Jones

If the Ravens were desperate before their Week 3 loss to Cincinnati, how do you define their state of mind after the first 0-3 start in the 20-year history of the franchise?

Traveling to Pittsburgh on a short week is always challenging, but the Ravens are fighting themselves as much as anything else as they enter October without a win under their belts. However, the absence of Ben Roethlisberger on the enemy side offers hope as Baltimore tries to earn a road win on a Thursday night playing against veteran backup Mike Vick.

With four players — tight end Crockett Gillmore, left tackle Eugene Monroe, defensive end Chris Canty, and wide receiver Breshad Perriman — already declared out on Wednesday, the Ravens didn’t have too many decisions to make for their inactive list, but cornerback Rashaan Melvin was deactivated after struggling mightily in his season debut against the Bengals last week. The recently-acquired Will Davis will see his first action with the Ravens after being acquired from Miami for a 2016 seventh-round pick on Sept. 21.

Veteran outside linebacker Jason Babin will also make his 2015 debut after being inactive for his first two games with the Ravens. Baltimore hopes the 35-year-old rush specialist can boost a pass rush that hasn’t found consistency since the season-ending injury to Terrell Suggs in the season opener.

In addition to being without Roethlisberger, the Steelers are missing second-year inside linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Cortez Allen, two absences that will hurt the NFL’s 19th-ranked pass defense.

These teams are meeting for the 39th time in the regular season with the Ravens trailing 17-21 and 7-12 in Pittsburgh. However, the Ravens have won two of the three contests against the Steelers last season, culminating with a 30-17 win at Heinz Field in the first round of the playoffs.

The forecast in Pittsburgh calls for mostly cloudy skies and temperatures in the high 50s with a very tiny chance for precipitation and winds up to 10 miles per hour, according to Weather.com.

Referee Clete Blakeman and his crew will officiate Sunday’s game.

The Ravens are wearing white jerseys with white pants while Pittsburgh dons its black tops with yellow pants.

Here are Thursday’s inactives:

BALTIMORE
WR Breshad Perriman
CB Tray Walker
CB Rashaan Melvin
OT Eugene Monroe
DT Christo Bilukidi
TE Crockett Gillmore
DE Chris Canty

PITTSBURGH
QB Ben Roethlisberger
LB Ryan Shazier
NT Daniel McCullers
TE Matt Spaeth
CB Cortez Allen
TE Jesse James
LB Anthony Chickillo

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