The Ravens will begin their playoff march to Super Bowl LIV in prime time.
After finishing a franchise-record 14-2 regular season with a 28-10 win over Pittsburgh on Sunday, top-seed Baltimore will host an AFC divisional-round tilt at M&T Bank Stadium on Saturday, Jan. 11 at 8:15 p.m., a game that will be televised on CBS. The Ravens will play the lowest remaining seed of Houston, Buffalo, or Tennessee, who will all compete in the AFC wild-card round this Saturday.
This marks the first time since the 2011 postseason that the AFC North champion Ravens will host a divisional-round game after enjoying a first-round bye for just the third time in team history. The Ravens won their only playoff meeting with the Texans in the 2011 postseason and are 2-1 in playoff encounters with the Titans, an old AFC Central rival. Baltimore has never faced the Bills in the playoffs.
A win in the divisional round would allow the Ravens to host the AFC Championship game for the first time in franchise history. The city of Baltimore last hosted the conference championship game on Jan. 3, 1971 when the Colts defeated Oakland at Memorial Stadium on their way to winning Super Bowl V.
After securing the No. 1 seed in the AFC and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs for the first time in team history, the Ravens will aim to win their third Super Bowl in their 24-year history.
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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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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Nose tackle Michael Pierce’s absence didn’t stop the Ravens defense from turning in its best performance of the season in Sunday’s dominant 41-7 win over Houston.
Thanks in part to general manager Eric DeCosta’s latest in-season signings of veteran defensive tackles Domata Peko and Justin Ellis, Baltimore held the Texans to 57 rushing yards on 15 carries through the first three quarters before giving up a Carlos Hyde 41-yard touchdown run long after the outcome had long been decided. Peko and Ellis had yet to play in the NFL this season, but the pair combined to play 43 snaps and make five tackles.
“Both of those guys stepped right in there, and you have to give them a lot of credit,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “To step in there like that, off the street, so to speak, they hadn’t been playing for the last few weeks. To be in that kind of shape, that’s not easy to do. They had over 20 plays apiece out there and did a heck of a job.
“It’s really good for our team. It gives us depth. It gives us top-level depth, starter-type level depth across the board.”
Peko and Ellis were two of six Ravens players who were not part of the organization in Week 1 to play 20 or more defensive snaps on Sunday. Those roster additions — headlined by last month’s acquisition of two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters — and the healthy post-bye return of cornerback Jimmy Smith have helped Baltimore improve from 27th in total defense and 23rd in points allowed after Week 4 to a respectable 14th in total yards allowed per game and seventh in scoring defense entering Monday. The Ravens allowed a season-low seven points and just 232 total yards against the Texans, the lowest yardage total they’ve surrendered since the season-opening 59-10 win at Miami.
Despite how pleased he was with the performance of Peko and Ellis, Harbaugh remains hopeful that Pierce can return in time for Monday night’s road game against the Los Angeles Rams. The fourth-year defensive lineman hasn’t played or practiced since injuring his right ankle early in the Week 10 win at Cincinnati.
“He had a chance for Sunday. I was told he had a chance for Sunday. He didn’t make it,” Harbaugh said. “If you start trying to predict things and you don’t know — I’m told he has a chance. I assume he has a better chance for this Sunday, and I’m kind of counting on him right now. But you just never know how healing is going to go.”
Special-teams standout and reserve wide receiver Chris Moore is also a possibility to play in Week 12 after missing the last two games with what Harbaugh confirmed to be a broken thumb. Moore has continued to practice on a limited basis, but he hasn’t been cleared for contact while practicing with a cast on his left thumb.
“We can protect it,” Harbaugh said. “He just has to feel good running and doing the things he has to do with his hands. He has a real good shot, but it’ll be really up to him and how it feels.”
The 8-2 Ravens will make their first appearance on Monday Night Football in two years as they play at the historic Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, but it will mark the 12th time in 14 Monday games under Harbaugh in which Baltimore has been the away team. The Ravens have gone 8-5 despite that extreme road disadvantage.
The bigger challenge could be the quick turnaround in flying home Tuesday morning and immediately beginning preparations for the Week 13 showdown with NFC-leading San Francisco.
“We’ve been everywhere on Monday night. It’s like Johnny Cash,” said Harbaugh as he laughed. “We’ve been everywhere, man, on Monday night — just not in Baltimore. Everywhere but Baltimore. I’m not complaining.
“It’s just something that you deal with, and we’ll be excited.”
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BALTIMORE — The Ravens will try to win their sixth straight game in a season for the first time since 2000, but the AFC South-leading Houston Texans stand in their way in Week 11.
Baltimore will have to do it without standout run-stopping defensive tackle Michael Pierce, who is inactive after missing practice all week with the right ankle injury sustained early in last Sunday’s win at Cincinnati. Head coach John Harbaugh described Pierce as a game-time decision on Friday, but the fourth-year defensive lineman did not go through an on-field workout, suggesting he wasn’t particularly close to playing.
Pierce’s status prompted the Ravens to sign veteran defensive tackles Domata Peko and Justin Ellis, who are both active for Sunday’s game. Second-year defensive lineman Zach Sieler is a healthy scratch after failing to impress in Pierce’s absence against the Bengals last week.
For the second straight game, wide receiver and special-teams standout Chris Moore was deactivated as he continues to deal with a substantial thumb injury. Rookie cornerback Iman Marshall is also inactive despite being activated from injured reserve earlier this week.
On Saturday, Houston downgraded starting wide receiver Will Fuller (hamstring) and starting cornerback Bradley Roby (hamstring) to out after both practiced only on a limited basis this week, but left tackle Laremy Tunsil (shoulder) and starting safety Tashaun Gipson (back/wrist) are active for the Texans after missing time prior to their bye week.
The Texans also deactivated cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, whom they claimed off waivers this week.
Sunday’s referee is Alex Kemp.
According to Weather.com, the Sunday forecast in Baltimore calls for cloudy skies and temperatures reaching the mid-40s with winds 10 to 15 miles per hour and no chance of precipitation.
The Ravens are wearing their purple jerseys with white pants while Houston dons white tops and navy blue pants for Week 11.
Sunday marks the 10th all-time meeting between these teams in the regular season with the Ravens enjoying a 7-2 advantage. The Texans have never won a game in Baltimore, which also includes the 2011 divisional playoff meeting at M&T Bank Stadium.
Below are Sunday’s inactives:
DT Michael Pierce
WR Chris Moore
QB Trace McSorley
WR Jaleel Scott
CB Iman Marshall
G Ben Powers
DT Zach Sieler
WR Will Fuller
CB Bradley Roby
CB Vernon Hargreaves
WR Steven Mitchell Jr.
LB Tyrell Adams
OT Chris Clark
DE Joel Heath
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The Ravens and Houston are both eyeing significant goals beyond leading their respective divisions entering Week 11.
That makes Sunday’s clash that much more important as the winner would hold no worse than the No. 2 spot in the AFC as well as a critical head-to-head tiebreaker approaching Thanksgiving. The urgency could be greater for the Texans, who trail Baltimore by one game and are currently scheduled to play teams .500 or better in five of their last seven contests. Houston also holds just a one-game lead over Indianapolis in the AFC South while the Ravens currently enjoy a cushion of 2 1/2 games in the AFC North.
It’s time to go on the record as these teams meet for the 10th time ever in the regular season with Baltimore holding a 7-2 advantage as well as a win in the only postseason encounter between these teams. Counting that playoff win, the Ravens are 6-2 against Houston in the John Harbaugh era.
Below are five predictions for Sunday:
1. Lamar Jackson will throw for 300 yards for the first time since Week 1. The Houston run defense is the best the Ravens have faced and is led by breakout defensive tackle D.J. Reader. That’s not to say Baltimore’s top-ranked ground game won’t be productive, but there may not be much room between the tackles, which will put more on Jackson’s legs and arm. Of course, that isn’t a bad thing as the 22-year-old is coming off his second perfect passer rating game and faces the NFL’s 29th-ranked pass defense. Jackson exceeding 35 pass attempts for the first time since Week 3 wouldn’t be surprising.
2. Deshaun Watson will become the first 300-yard passer and the third 60-yard rusher against Baltimore since Week 4. That prediction alone reflects how much the Ravens defense has improved since September, but Watson is having his own MVP-caliber season and is backed by a ground attack averaging more than 140 yards per game. The Texans won’t kill Baltimore with the run, but the expected absence of Michael Pierce could compromise Wink Martindale’s preference to use the dime, potentially leaving more linebackers on the field who won’t be able to catch Watson in space.
3. Jimmy Smith will register his first interception of 2019. You’d anticipate Marlon Humphrey traveling with All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins and we’ve all seen what Marcus Peters has done since becoming a Raven, but Smith has quietly played well since returning from the knee injury sustained in Week 1. Hopkins is obviously Watson’s go-to guy, but Kenny Stills is a viable deep threat and Houston could potentially welcome back Will Fuller from a hamstring strain. The Texans are superb using the no-huddle attack, something with which New England had success against the Ravens a couple weeks ago.
4. Tight ends will combine to catch four touchdowns in this high-scoring game. We all know how important Mark Andrews, Nick Boyle, and Hayden Hurst are to the Ravens’ passing game as the three have combined to make up 45 percent of the team’s receiving yards, but Houston tight ends Darren Fells and Jordan Akins have caught eight of Watson’s 18 touchdown passes this season, meaning you can’t sleep on them. The Ravens clearly have the superior position group here, but a key to this game will be how each defense handles the opposition’s tight ends as both blockers and receivers.
5. Justin Tucker’s late field goal will secure a 34-31 victory for the Ravens. You can’t ask for much more on paper than two MVP candidates at quarterback squaring off in what could turn into a shootout reminiscent of their classic Louisville-Clemson showdown three years ago. The Texans coming off their bye week is a red flag working against a Baltimore team that is probably in line for a bit of a market correction after making its current five-game winning streak look so easy. However, Houston has a quick turnaround for a Thursday game against AFC South rival Indianapolis, which likely exhausted some of the coaching staff’s extra time to prepare for such an unconventional Baltimore offense. In a high-profile game like this, I’ll pick the team with the best player, who is Jackson at this very moment. Of course, Watson and Hopkins could have something to say about that on Sunday afternoon.
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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens defensive tackle Michael Pierce is listed as doubtful to play in Sunday’s AFC clash with the Houston Texans.
The run-stopping defensive lineman missed practice all week as he continues to recover from a right ankle injury sustained on the first defensive play of last Sunday’s win in Cincinnati. Head coach John Harbaugh said Pierce will be a game-time decision, but he appears likely to miss his first game of the season after starting each of the first nine contests.
Baltimore signed veteran defensive tackles Domata Peko and Justin Ellis earlier this week to boost its run defense with Pierce’s expected absence. The Texans own the NFL’s fourth-ranked run offense.
“I feel good about them to contribute Sunday,” Harbaugh said. “They both practiced well. They practiced hard. They’re in good shape. It’s not the most complicated thing to understand. They have to figure out where to line up on the different calls. There are certain checks that they need to understand, but they’re good at that and they know how to play the techniques that we play. That’s why we signed them.
“Yes, they have a chance to play on Sunday if the circumstances work out with Michael.”
Wide receiver Marquise Brown (right ankle) returned to practice on a limited basis Friday and is expected to play despite being listed as questionable on the injury report. Wide receiver Chris Moore (left thumb) is also questionable after practicing on a limited basis all week and missing last Sunday’s game against the Bengals.
Safety Earl Thomas (knee) was not listed on the final game status injury report after practicing fully on Thursday and Friday.
The Texans listed four starters as questionable to play coming off their bye week. Wide receiver Will Fuller (hamstring) and Tashaun Gipson (back/wrist) missed Houston’s final two games before its Week 10 bye while cornerback Bradley Roby (hamstring) has missed the last three games. Texans left tackle Laremy Tunsil missed the Week 9 win over Jacksonville.
According to Weather.com, the Sunday forecast in Baltimore calls for cloudy skies and temperatures reaching the mid-40s with winds 10 to 15 miles per hour and only a slight chance of precipitation.
Below is the final injury report for Sunday’s game:
DOUBTFUL: DT Michael Pierce (ankle)
QUESTIONABLE: WR Marquise Brown (ankle), WR Chris Moore (thumb)
QUESTIONABLE: WR Will Fuller (hamstring), S Tashaun Gipson (back/wrist), CB Bradley Roby (hamstring), OT Laremy Tunsil (shoulder)
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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens wide receiver Marquise Brown didn’t practice Thursday as he continues to receive occasional rest for the residual effects of a right ankle injury that sidelined him for two games prior to the Week 8 bye.
After not practicing on each of the last two Fridays before playing in that week’s game, Brown not taking part Thursday does break the recent pattern of managing his workload, making his status worth monitoring for the week’s final practice. However, the rookie first-round pick was present for the morning walk-through and even lingered on the indoor field to throw some passes at the goalpost, not looking like a player in danger of missing Sunday’s game against Houston.
Meanwhile, defensive tackle Michael Pierce (right ankle) missed his second straight practice and is looking less likely to play against the Texans. Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale offered high praise to general manager Eric DeCosta for the acquisitions of veteran defensive tackles Domata Peko and Justin Ellis earlier this week.
“Eric should get Executive of the Year with as much help as he’s given us,” said Martindale of the most recent of several in-season additions made to the Baltimore defense. “I know [late Ravens defensive line coach Clarence Brooks] is looking down happy as heck for us because we have two run-stoppers we just brought in here. As far as how fast we can put them in there right away, we’ll see. But that’s really going to be a good addition. I know [Brandon Williams] wishes that they were there for Cincinnati.”
Williams received a veteran day off from Thursday’s practice, which was deserving after the veteran defensive tackle played a season-high 57 defensive snaps against the Bengals.
Safety Earl Thomas (knee) was a full participant after sitting out Wednesday.
Two days after rookie cornerback Iman Marshall was officially activated from injured reserve, the Ravens used their second and final designation to return from IR on veteran safety Brynden Trawick, who practiced for the first time since being placed on IR with an elbow injury on Oct. 3. The 2017 Pro Bowl special-teams player won’t be eligible to return to action until the Dec. 8 game at Buffalo.
“I’m fired up about that because he makes us better,” special teams coach Chris Horton said. “We’ve taken a hit over the past couple weeks, but just getting some guys back [and] a player like him and his style — he makes us better.”
No other Baltimore player currently on IR will be eligible to return this season.
The Texans’ injury report from Wednesday remained unchanged with six players listed as limited participants coming off their bye week.
Below is Thursday’s full injury report:
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: WR Marquise Brown (ankle), DT Michael Pierce (ankle), DT Brandon Williams (non-injury)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: WR Chris Moore (thumb)
FULL PARTICIPATION: CB Brandon Carr (non-injury), RB Mark Ingram (non-injury), CB Jimmy Smith (non-injury), Earl Thomas (knee)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: LB Dylan Cole (knee), WR Will Fuller (hamstring), S Tashaun Gipson (back/wrist), OL Tytus Howard (knee), CB Bradley Roby (hamstring), OT Laremy Tunsil (shoulder)
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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Lamar Jackson and the Ravens have already played quite the slate of quarterbacks from a storyline perspective this season.
Jackson has faced off against fellow Heisman Trophy winners (Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield), the reigning league MVP (Patrick Mahomes), one of the most accomplished dual-threat quarterbacks in NFL history (Russell Wilson), and arguably the greatest quarterback of all time (Tom Brady). But Houston’s Deshaun Watson might be the closest contemporary to the one-of-a-kind Jackson in terms of skill set, making Sunday’s showdown between the AFC North-leading Ravens and the AFC South-leading Texans — currently the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in the conference respectively — that much more exciting.
These former ACC rivals met once before in one of college football’s best games in recent memory in which Watson and No. 5 Clemson edged Jackson and No. 3 Louisville in a 42-36 shootout in 2016. Watson threw for 306 yards and five touchdowns and rushed for 91 yards in that instant classic while Jackson passed for 295 yards and a touchdown and ran for 162 yards and two touchdowns.
“He was just dicing us down the field,” recalled Jackson, who lamented his Cardinals offense falling one yard shy of a first down inside the red zone on the final drive. “Our defense did great, don’t get me wrong. Our defense played a great game, but he was just doing Deshaun Watson things — scoring touchdowns, making incredible throws. They came out with the victory.”
Watson would lead Clemson to a national championship by season’s end while a 19-year-old Jackson became the youngest player to ever win the Heisman Trophy that December. And after proving wrong a list of doubters that included multiple quarterback-needy teams passing on them in their respective drafts years, Watson and Jackson meet again as MVP candidates in what Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale is calling “one of those NFL history games” in this new age of dual-threat quarterbacks.
That’s not to say Watson and Jackson are the same exact player, of course.
The 24-year-old Watson only fell to 12th overall in the 2017 draft and threw an amazing 19 touchdowns in his first seven games before an ACL tear sustained in practice cruelly ended his rookie campaign. Jackson, 22, faced much harsher scrutiny a year later with some even suggesting he change positions and virtually every team in the league passing on him — including the Ravens — before Baltimore traded back into the first round to select him 32nd overall. While Watson was an overnight sensation whose only hiccup over his first three years has come via injury, Jackson intially had to wait his turn behind longtime starter Joe Flacco as a rookie and has shown eye-opening improvement as a passer in his second year, making his loudest doubters look very foolish.
Thanks in part to a higher volume of opportunities and an all-world wide receiver in DeAndre Hopkins, Watson maintains the edge as a passer in terms of both conventional numbers and ESPN QBR’s pure passing expected points added metric, but Jackson owns a better passing grade from Pro Football Focus through Week 10. In terms of yards per attempt, Watson’s 8.1 barely edges Jackson’s 8.0, reinforcing the gap being smaller than you’d think when looking only at completion percentage and counting numbers.
We know Jackson has no equal as a record-setting rushing quarterback in today’s game, but Watson surprisingly has a slightly better PFF run grade entering Week 11, which needn’t be taken as a contrarian viewpoint as much as a reflection of his own ability to make plays with his legs — even while lacking the same speed or penchant for running as the Ravens quarterback. Jackson leads the NFL at a whopping 6.6 yards per carry, but Watson ranks fourth at 5.4 yards per rush among those with at least 50 carries.
Watson’s impressive consistency over 32 career games and Jackson’s tremendous leap in his second season have essentially left the two on a level playing field in the present. One can make the “Coke or Pepsi” pick in terms of preferring a more polished passer with very good mobility or the lesser — but rapidly improving — thrower with transcendent rushing ability.
Either way, there’s nothing fair about it for defenses having to account for their kind of dual-threat ability that’s changing the NFL.
“Peyton Manning was extremely hard to defend. Tom Brady is hard to defend. But neither one of them could run a 4.3 [40-yard dash],” ninth-year cornerback Jimmy Smith said. “You don’t have to worry about tackling them on any given play. There’s nothing more backbreaking for a defense than to keep an offense at third-and-10 or third-and-15 and a freaking quarterback just takes it with his legs and gets a first down and extends a drive. It just hurts. These types of quarterbacks can do that now days.
“It’s just basically the whole college offense transitioning to the NFL. It’s kind of great to see actually.”
Three years after squaring off as the two best players in college football, Jackson and Watson will again be starring on the same field. This week, Jackson referred to Watson as “Brodie” — a term of endearment — while the Texans quarterback described himself as a “proud friend” watching the quarterback who edged him out for the Heisman Trophy silence his critics, speaking to their affection for one another. On Thursday, both were nominated by their teammates for the 2019 Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award, a reflection of their character and leadership ability at such young ages.
Jackson and Watson are changing the game, making you believe what they did in their first meeting at the collegiate level three years ago was only scratching the surface. Whoever comes out on top this time around could be making a loud statement in the MVP race.
“We’re just doing our thing,” Jackson said. “We’re just playing ball, having fun, doing what all of us have done since we were kids, doing something we love. That’s all.”
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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Little went wrong in the Ravens’ blowout win over Cincinnati, but an ankle injury to defensive tackle Michael Pierce could loom large with AFC South-leading Houston coming to town Sunday.
The run-stopping lineman hurt his right ankle on the first defensive play against the Bengals and tried to return on the following drive before exiting the game for good after only two more snaps. Sunday’s X-ray was negative, but Pierce could miss some time, which would be significant for a run defense currently ranking eighth in yards per game allowed but only 18th in yards per carry surrendered.
“I would say he’s day-to-day right now. Nothing serious,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “It won’t be a long-term injury, which is good news based on the MRI today. There’s a chance he’ll play on Sunday. We’ll just have to see how he does.”
With Pierce missing all but three defensive snaps on Sunday, the Ravens struggled to stop the Cincinnati run game, allowing 102 yards and 5.7 yards per carry in the first half before settling in to give up just 55 yards on 22 carries over the final two quarters. Baltimore allowed a season-worst 6.7 yards per carry in the Week 4 loss to Cleveland in which Brandon Williams sat out with a knee injury, making it clear the run defense isn’t the same without the two hulking defensive tackles in the middle.
With Pierce out, Williams made a season-high seven tackles and played 59 defensive snaps, the fifth-highest total of his career. Second-year defensive lineman Zach Sieler played a career-high 24 defensive snaps while third-year defensive end Chris Wormley picked up a sack and played 47 defensive snaps, the second-highest total of his career.
“Zach fought in there and got better as the game went on. He played well in the second half,” Harbaugh said. “‘Worm’ fought through there and had a lot of good plays. And like anything, probably plays he’d want to have back too and improve upon.
“But Brandon was a force. Brandon kind of took it upon himself to get that run stopped, especially in the second half. He played a lot of plays, played super hard, very physical in there. We needed him to, and he did a great job with it.”
Fullback and defensive lineman Patrick Ricard was impressive in just 12 defensive snaps with a strip-sack and three other tackles, but his role on offense will make it challenging to manage his workload if Pierce can’t play against the Texans in Week 11.
Harbaugh confirmed rookie cornerback Iman Marshall could be activated from injured reserve as soon as this week. The fourth-round pick from USC has been sidelined with toe and hamstring injuries since early in the preseason, but he was designated to return from IR on Oct. 28, which triggered a 21-day window in which he can practice and the coaching staff can evaluate him. The Ravens would need to make a decision by early next week whether to active him to the 53-man roster or to leave him on IR for the remainder of the season.
Given the depth of the secondary, Marshall’s path to a game-day role would be on special teams, an area that’s taken some significant hits in recent weeks.
“We plan on bringing him up,” Harbaugh said. “Whether he’s active or not just kind of depends on how the roster shakes out. He has practiced well. He looks healthy, and hopefully he can contribute to us. … That’s an area that could use some bolstering, personnel-wise, so that’s one option for us.”
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FanFest is a week away and pitchers and catchers report to Sarasota in less than a month with the Orioles’ biggest offseason player acquisitions to date being Rule 5 infielders Richie Martin and Drew Jackson.
That’s not all that unusual if you recall the snail’s pace at which former head baseball man Dan Duquette proceeded over the last several offseasons, frequently waiting until February — even March — to sign a veteran free agent or two at a market-friendly rate.
But we know this winter is different. Very different. It needs to be when you’re coming off a franchise-record 115-loss season and your major league roster — and in many ways, the entire organization — was reduced to rubble last year. The possibility remains for a veteran signing or two before Opening Day, but mostly with the thought of flipping that player this summer for more prospects to continue building for the future.
Realistically, the Orioles couldn’t have done any better than hiring Mike Elias as general manager and Sig Mejdal to lead their analytics department after the two were integral parts in building the Houston Astros into World Series champions. New field manager Brandon Hyde — the former bench coach of Joe Maddon in Chicago — made a good first impression at his introductory press conference last month and possesses the kind of versatile baseball background most front offices prefer these days.
Their arrival creates reason for hope and a legitimate belief that better days are ahead — just not in 2019. As the 36-year-old Elias has already said more than once, this process has no shortcuts or a fast-forward button to when the Orioles will be competitive again. Probability and history may tell us the Orioles are unlikely to match their .290 winning percentage from a year ago, but avoiding 100 losses would likely qualify as a minor miracle when you examine the current 40-man roster.
No, the coming season in the American League East isn’t going to be fun. The new regime is essentially still surveying the wreckage, and waiting will be the hardest part as the Orioles work from the ground up.
The present is about building infrastructure for amateur and international scouting, analytics, and player development with gains unlikely to be noticeable for some time. Elias is still more than four months away from making his first amateur pick for the Orioles. As it relates to players already in the organization, the new regime is seeking those individuals possessing the proper talent as well as a growth mindset, a trait discussed at length in Ben Reiter’s “Astroball.”
In the same way future All-Stars Jose Altuve, Dallas Keuchel, and George Springer — all part of the Houston organization before the arrival of current general manager Jeff Luhnow — accepted recommendations from Mejdal’s “Nerd Cave” to make improvements early in their careers, the likes of Dylan Bundy, Mychal Givens, and Trey Mancini as well as countless minor leaguers already in the system will be exposed to new data and methods that weren’t previously available. What players do with that information can help distinguish viable assets from the many placeholders we’ll be watching over these next few seasons.
But short-term gains with major league players not far from free agency such as Bundy, Givens, and Jonathan Villar are likely to result in more trades for more prospects, an exhausting proposition for fans already enduring the 2018 fire sale. It remains to be seen whether even Mancini or projected starting center fielder Cedric Mullins — players much further away from free agency — will still be in Baltimore by the time the Orioles are contending again.
For the most part, we’ll be watching too many players who don’t belong in the majors in 2019 and the year or two after that. Even the arrival of talented prospects will be calculated as the organization cannot rush the development of Yusniel Diaz, Ryan Mountcastle, D.L. Hall, and others — and won’t want to start their service clocks anyway — just because there’s no one better at the major league level.
If that leads to more losses, well, that’s not the worst thing for the future. It will be Hyde’s job to make sure the major league club plays hard on a nightly basis, of course, but we know the organization’s endgame here. The Orioles aren’t wasting resources trying to assemble a team that still wouldn’t be close to being competitive this coming season. Manny Machado spending 3 1/2 months on last year’s club should remind us that Baltimore is years away from being “one player away.”
Picking first in three consecutive drafts brought the Astros All-Star infielders Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman, though the latter came by way of the Brady Aiken pick. A similar scenario playing out for the Orioles wouldn’t be easy, but it’s all about keeping faith in the process — and waiting. If you need a deeper perspective on the new regime, reading a copy of “Astroball” wouldn’t hurt.
To say next week’s FanFest will be a tough sell is an understatement. There are only so many Billy Joel concerts and bobblehead giveaways and ticket promotions to try to mask what will be a ton of losing in the foreseeable future, but those kinds of things will be needed more than ever. Marketing a club with an over-under win total of 59 to a fan base that wasn’t exactly showing up in droves when the Orioles were still competitive a couple years ago will be the most difficult job in the entire organization.
The Orioles will try to sell a promising future, but the wait to get there won’t be easy.
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