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Twelve Ravens thoughts on DeCosta, Harbaugh remarks from NFL combine

Posted on 28 February 2019 by Luke Jones

With Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta and head coach John Harbaugh answering questions at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. If you had simply read the transcript, DeCosta sounded very similar to Ozzie Newsome speaking at his first combine as the general manager, which isn’t surprising as few executives and coaches tip their hands with free agency two weeks away.

2. The balance between keeping as much of the defense together as possible and building a stronger offense continues to strike me as a difficult task, especially factoring the age of some key defensive players. This is what happens when trying to rebuild on the fly.

3. DeCosta expressed pride in the Ravens’ identity being built on defense historically and stated a desire to continue that tradition. It’s understandable, but Baltimore continuing that philosophy has netted one playoff win since Ray Lewis and Ed Reed suited up for the final time.

4. Harbaugh expects Marshal Yanda to continue playing, which is great news for an offensive line that could already stand to improve inside. The seven-time Pro Bowl guard is entering the final year of his contract and probably could play at a high level longer than that if he wants.

5. While dancing around questions about Eric Weddle and Jimmy Smith, DeCosta said he expects Brandon Carr to return, which could be bad news for Smith and his $15.85 million cap number. Carr is older, but he’s cheaper, more durable, and coming off a more consistent season than Smith.

6. DeCosta didn’t completely dismiss the possibility of using the franchise tag on C.J. Mosley, but he made it clear a long-term deal remains the goal with talks “ongoing” and expected to continue with agent Jimmy Sexton in Indianapolis. This figures to be a critical week on that front.

7. The Ravens brass being complimentary of John Brown wasn’t surprising, but I remain skeptical there’s a great fit there — from his perspective — in terms of price tag and offensive philosophy. Either way, he should do well in what appears to be an underwhelming free-agent market for wide receivers.

8. Terrell Suggs stated his intentions months ago to continue playing in 2019, but talks will be delicate in trying to be realistic about the 36-year-old’s current value without insulting someone who’s been so critical to the organization. You hope something can be worked out that makes sense for both sides.

9. Harbaugh praised the inside-outside versatility and intensity of Za’Darius Smith, but the lack of discussion about Baltimore’s 2018 sack leader reflects how few expect him to return. His market should be interesting, especially if a few other free-agent pass rushers indeed receive the franchise tag.

10. DeCosta summed up his thoughts on Lamar Jackson’s rushing ability by saying, “We certainly want to keep him healthy, but we also want to win and … score points.” The keys are his passing development and adding enough talent to diminish the need for him to run 15-plus times per game.

11. Harbaugh acknowledged the organization’s need to draft and develop wide receivers more effectively while DeCosta said, “We’ve got to add playmakers.” Yes.

12. Counting the Joe Flacco trade and the Michael Crabtree release, the Ravens are already dealing with nearly $22 million in dead money on this year’s salary cap. With another big release or two still very possible, that figure is shaping up to be their largest amount since 2015.

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Even with win, Ravens see playoff margin for error shrink in Week 15

Posted on 17 December 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens handled their business with a 20-12 win over Tampa Bay to maintain control of the No. 6 spot in the AFC playoff race on Sunday.

The problem was no other results falling favorably in their quest to return to the postseason for the first time since 2014, making Saturday’s trip to Los Angeles to take on the red-hot Chargers close to a must-win affair. You can thank losing efforts by New England, Dallas, and the New York Giants for Baltimore’s margin for error all but evaporating in Week 15.

Players in the post-game locker room were split on whether they’d watch Pittsburgh’s late-afternoon clash with the Patriots as a Steelers loss would have given the Ravens the lead in the AFC North. However, Mike Tomlin’s team snapped its three-game losing streak to remain in first place and broke a five-game slide against New England with a 17-10 win. With the Steelers traveling to New Orleans in Week 16 and hosting last-place Cincinnati in the season finale, the Ravens need to win their final two games at the Chargers and at home against Cleveland to have any realistic hope of winning their first division title since 2012.

While many were focused on the happenings at Heinz Field, Indianapolis and Tennessee both registered wins to improve to 8-6, decreasing Baltimore’s chances of securing a wild-card spot with a 9-7 record. With the Colts hosting the 5-9 Giants and the Titans hosting a 7-7 Washington team down to its third-string quarterback next weekend before meeting each other in Week 17, one of those AFC South teams appears likely to finish 10-6.

What does that mean?

The Ravens could desperately use their first victory over a team with a winning record since Week 6 when they take on Philip Rivers and the Chargers. Barring an unlikely sequence of events, there will be no backing into the playoffs for John Harbaugh’s team, which is probably fair since Baltimore currently owns the worst strength of victory (.415) among the remaining AFC playoff contenders. If the Ravens can’t beat a playoff-caliber team in December, do they really deserve to play into January?

The good news is the Ravens are almost guaranteed to make the playoffs with a 10-6 record as either the division winner or the second wild card.

“I think the thing that plays in our favor is all we have to do is win and we should be in,” said cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who shined in Sunday’s win with an interception and four pass breakups. “It definitely feels good, and I feel like the team, we all were on board to get this one. Next, we have the Chargers.”

Below are the Ravens’ playoff scenarios entering Week 16:

* Baltimore is eliminated from the AFC North race with a loss to the Chargers and a Pittsburgh win.

* Baltimore is eliminated from AFC wild-card contention with a loss and wins by Indianapolis and Tennessee.

* Baltimore is eliminated from postseason contention with a loss to the Chargers and wins by Pittsburgh, Tennessee, and Indianapolis.

* Baltimore cannot clinch a playoff berth in Week 16.

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Sunday off proves fruitful for Ravens’ playoff hopes

Posted on 12 November 2018 by Luke Jones

The status of injured quarterback Joe Flacco may have dominated the weekend conversation, but a Sunday off still proved fruitful for the Ravens and their playoff hopes as they return to work this week.

Losses by Cincinnati and Miami left Baltimore only one game out of the final AFC wild-card spot, an encouraging development as John Harbaugh’s team tries to rebound from its current three-game losing streak after a week of rest. The Bengals were particularly miserable in their 51-14 home defeat to New Orleans and will travel to M&T Bank Stadium in Week 11 after allowing an NFL-record 2,117 yards over their last four games — three of them losses. The Ravens learned firsthand a few weeks ago how impressive the Saints are, but Cincinnati playing so poorly coming off its bye should serve as a morale boost for other AFC teams vying for the No. 6 spot the Bengals are currently occupying.

After falling at Green Bay, the Dolphins enter their bye week having lost five of their last seven to erase the good vibes of a 3-0 start. And despite advancing to last year’s AFC Championship and still being considered dangerous on paper, Jacksonville may have seen its fate all but sealed Sunday after sustaining a fifth consecutive loss in a 29-26 final at Indianapolis to fall to 3-6.

The news wasn’t all positive, however, as Tennessee pulled off a surprising 34-10 blowout win over New England to move a full game ahead of Baltimore. Of course, the Ravens own a head-to-head tiebreaker with the 5-4 Titans, who will now play back-to-back road games against the Colts and AFC South-leading Houston.

Their 29-26 win over the Jaguars gave the Colts a third straight victory and officially made them a team of interest in the wild-card race. Indianapolis plays its next two games at home against the Titans and Dolphins, but the Ravens have the superior conference record at the moment to keep them ahead in the wild-card standings.

Of course, none of this means much if the Ravens don’t win their next two home games against the defense-challenged Bengals and hapless Oakland to get themselves back above .500 ahead of a daunting December featuring road games at Atlanta, Kansas City, and the Los Angeles Chargers. A loss in either of these next two games will shift all focus to the organization’s future and anticipated changes.

Below is a look at the AFC wild-card standings at the end of Week 10:

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Monday brings first adversity to Ravens’ near-flawless summer

Posted on 20 August 2018 by Luke Jones

You couldn’t have asked for a better start to the summer for the Ravens.

Despite a longer-than-usual training camp in preparation for the Hall of Fame Game, John Harbaugh’s team has avoided major injuries so far. By most accounts, the Ravens have practiced well on both sides of the ball with quarterback Joe Flacco in particular having his best preseason in years. Even the best teams face their share of questions this time of year, but the summer had been as close to flawless as one could hope with Baltimore aiming to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

But adversity finally arrived Monday before the Ravens improved to 3-0 in the preseason with a 20-19 win over Indianapolis.

Jimmy Smith was suspiciously absent during pre-game warmups before The Athletic reported the eighth-year cornerback is facing a potential multi-week suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy. The reason for the discipline remains unclear, but it possibly stems from a child custody case reported by The Sun last November that included accusations of domestic violence and illegal drug use. Smith did not face any criminal charges in the matter and denied the claims made by the mother of his first child.

Smith was scheduled to meet with league officials Monday as part of the appeal process, per The Athletic.

Harbaugh offered few details when asked about the veteran corner’s absence following the game. Smith has made an impressive return to the field after suffering a torn Achilles tendon last December, taking part in all but a few summer practices and playing nine snaps in the second preseason game on Aug. 9.

“A personal issue he was taking care of,” Harbaugh said, “so he was excused.”

Without knowing the circumstances leading to the discipline and speaking strictly from a football standpoint, Smith’s absence would be a difficult one for the Ravens to endure, but it’s one they’ve gotten used to dealing with in recent years. The oft-injured defensive back has played in all 16 games just twice in his first seven seasons and missed a total of 26 regular-season contests, the reason why he’s never achieved Pro Bowl status despite extended periods of strong play at various times in his career.

Smith’s season-ending Achilles tear last December was also accompanied by a four-game suspension for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy. He said earlier this summer the failed test came from an unapproved pre-workout supplement.

Without Smith, defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale would turn to dependable veteran Brandon Carr and 2017 first-round pick Marlon Humphrey, the same duo who started when Smith was lost last December. Returning slot cornerback Tavon Young and versatile third-year corner Maurice Canady would serve as the primary backups with 2018 fourth-round pick Anthony Averett also showing promise in his first training camp. It’s no secret the pass defense has struggled without Smith in recent seasons, but general manager Ozzie Newsome has gone to great lengths to improving the depth at the position in recent offseasons.

Smith’s potential suspension could explain why the Ravens recently expressed interest in free-agent cornerback Bashaud Breeland, a move that appeared peculiar because of their depth at the position. It remains unclear whether Baltimore would make a stronger push to sign the former Washington starter when — and if — a suspension becomes official.

The Ravens also faced their most significant injury scare of the preseason Monday night when an Indianapolis player fell into the right knee of starting left tackle Ronnie Stanley in the first quarter. The 2016 first-round pick was able to walk off the field and didn’t return, but it appears he avoided serious injury and was walking around on the sideline without the use of crutches later in the game.

“It’s not any kind of big tear. It’s a strain,” Harbaugh said. “I was told during the game a knee strain. I’m sure they’ll look at that more, but they are usually pretty darn accurate with those things.”

Stanley will have close to three weeks to get ready for the Sept. 9 opener against Buffalo, but his absence was a reminder of how tenuous the offensive line depth is as the Ravens try to figure out their best starting combination and identify two or three other reliable backups. Rookie sixth-round pick Greg Senat filled in at left tackle, but it’s unclear how Baltimore would proceed if Stanley were to miss any game action. James Hurst and Alex Lewis have filled in for Stanley in the past, but neither inspires much confidence at the position and both are better suited to play guard.

Six-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda has yet to play in the preseason, but he is on track to be ready for Week 1.

The Ravens appeared to make it through another preseason win with Stanley being their only injury concern, but the Smith news provided the first real dent to their prospects for the new season.

Baltimore can only hope its cornerback depth will answer the challenge.

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Ravens-Colts preseason primer: Five players to watch

Posted on 19 August 2018 by Luke Jones

After beginning training camp more than a month ago, the Ravens have waited longer than usual to continue their preseason schedule as they take on Indianapolis on Monday night.

Entering a stretch of three exhibition contests in an 11-day period, John Harbaugh’s team also completed its second set of joint practices over the weekend, taking advantage of the longer-than-normal break since the Aug. 9 win over the Los Angeles Rams to work out with the Colts. An extra preseason game and joint practices with two different teams have broken up the usual monotony of summer and provided extra competition as the Ravens aim to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

“It’s definitely strange. I think the last few years we’ve been stacked just every week on Thursdays,” said quarterback Joe Flacco about the preseason schedule. “It just is what it is. We’re in the training camp flow right now. Obviously, when you start to play these games, it breaks things up a little bit. It’s always nice to get back to football.”

The practice sessions with the Colts did not come without drama, however, as a number of skirmishes broke out on Saturday. The Ravens had mostly avoided any semblance of fights in practices this summer as even two competitive workouts with the Rams two weeks ago remained mostly free of incidents.

Might there be some carryover into a nationally-televised preseason game?

“It cracks me up. Is this a healthy obsession that we all have with fights in training camp practices?” said Harbaugh after Saturday’s practice. “It’s nothing. It’s much ado about nothing. It got broken up pretty quickly, and we’re moving on.”

Monday marks the second time the Ravens and the Colts will face off in the preseason with Baltimore winning the only other exhibition encounter in 2016. Indianapolis leads the all-time regular-season series by an 8-4 margin and has won two of the three all-time postseason meetings.

The Ravens own a 30-12 record in preseason games under Harbaugh and have won 10 straight exhibition contests.

Unofficial (and largely speculative) injury report

The Ravens are not required to release an injury report like they do for regular-season games, but I’ve offered my best guess on what one would look like if it were to be released ahead of Monday’s game.

Most of the players ruled to be out will come as no surprise, but the status of a few will remain in question. Of course, this list does not include any veteran starters who could be held out due to the coaching staff’s preference.

Again, this is not an official injury report released by the Ravens:

OUT: LB Bam Bradley (knee), CB Jaylen Hill (knee), WR Quincy Adeboyejo (quadriceps)
DOUBTFUL: LB Alvin Jones
QUESTIONABLE: CB Maurice Canady (muscle strain), RB Kenneth Dixon (hamstring), LB Tyus Bowser (groin), G Marshal Yanda (shoulder/ankle)

Five players to watch Thursday night

RB Kenneth Dixon

The 2016 fourth-round pick entered summer as a roster lock and was viewed as a wild card in this offense, but a hamstring injury sidelined him for the first two preseason contests. On top of that, Dixon hasn’t done much to distinguish himself when he has practiced as running backs coach Thomas Hammock even acknowledged the need for him to get his body right. I’m not yet buying rookie free agent Gus Edwards seriously pushing Dixon for a roster spot, but the latter needs to start showing more.

LB Albert McClellan

The special-teams ace doesn’t immediately stand out as one of the longest-tenured Ravens, but the eighth-year veteran is one of the most respected players in the organization. That said, he’s coming back from a major knee injury and is competing in a deep group of young linebackers with only so many roster spots to go around. This is the most vulnerable McClellan has looked since his first couple seasons.

WR/RS Tim White

Many anointed the undrafted free agent from Arizona State as Baltimore’s next return specialist after his standout preseason debut last year, but durability has been a concern as White sat out his rookie year with a thumb injury and missed more time this summer. The 5-foot-10, 175-pound receiver has good speed and flashes from time to time as a receiver, but there’s no guarantee the Ravens will carry a specialized returner on the roster, especially with so many tough calls to make at other positions.

LB Tyus Bowser

Last year’s second-round pick had a terrific spring and looked poised to take on an expanded reserve role behind starting outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Matt Judon, but a groin injury has cost him a sizable portion of training camp. His absence has opened the door for Tim Williams and Kamalei Correa to improve their stock in the linebacker pecking order, putting pressure on Bowser to stand out over these final three preseason games. The talent is there, but the 23-year-old needs these live-game reps.

OL Nico Siragusa

A long recovery from a serious knee injury made it tough to know what to expect from the 2017 fourth-round pick, but Siragusa has shown improvement since the start of camp. He was able to play 58 offensive snaps against the Rams after playing sparingly in the Hall of Fame Game, another encouraging sign. The battle for any reserve spots behind the top six offensive linemen looks to be wide open.

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Ravens remain healthy ahead of extended trip to Indianapolis

Posted on 16 August 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens nearly had their full complement of players for their final workout before their road trip to Indianapolis for two joint practices and their third preseason game.

Rookie linebacker Alvin Jones was the only player not on the physically unable to perform list not to be on the field for the portion of practice open to media on Thursday. The Ravens were practicing indoors as new sod was being laid on their outdoor fields in Owings Mills.

John Harbaugh’s team will practice with the Colts on Friday and Saturday before their nationally-televised preseason game on Monday night.

Third-year running back Kenneth Dixon is one of a few players yet to play in the preseason who will need to take advantage of remaining opportunities to improve his roster standing. Dixon missed the entire 2017 season after suffering a meniscus injury while working out shortly before training camp. He also served two drug-related suspensions last season after accumulating 544 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns as a rookie fourth-round pick in 2016.

“I really want to see him out there in a game,” Harbaugh said on Tuesday. “He looked good in practice the past few days [and] looks like he’s healthy. To see him in a game will be exciting. I’ll be holding my breath and looking forward to seeing him make one of his signature moves and make somebody miss and all that. If he can do that, that would be good for our team.”

Other players needing to make a good impression after sitting out last Thursday’s game against the Los Angeles Rams include outside linebacker Tyus Bowser, wide receiver and return specialist Tim White, and tight ends Maxx Williams and Darren Waller. Unlike the other aforementioned names, Bowser isn’t fighting for a roster spot after being the Ravens’ second-round pick last year, but he has lost ground to both Tim Williams and Kamalei Correa in the competition for rotational playing time at outside linebacker behind starters Terrell Suggs and Matt Judon.

Linebacker Bam Bradley (knee), cornerback Jaylen Hill (knee), and wide receiver Quincy Adeboyejo (quadriceps) remain on the physically unable to perform list and will carry that designation into the regular season. That means the trio will not count against the 53-man roster limit, but they will be required to sit out at least the first six weeks of the season.

Bradley and Hill have been slow to recover from ACL tears suffered last season while Adeboyejo injured his quadriceps and underwent surgery in mid-May.

“As far as their relative progress, I really don’t know,” Harbaugh said. “I don’t get daily updates on those guys. We’ll see how it goes once the long-term portion of the injury is over.”

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Ravens must balance opportunity with health in expanded preseason

Posted on 11 July 2018 by Luke Jones

Ravens rookies reported for the start of training camp on Wednesday, just a week after the Fourth of July holiday and two weeks before many other teams in the NFL begin their summer work.

The early start is the result of the Ravens’ first ever appearance in the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game against Chicago on Aug. 2, which falls a full week before the start of the usual preseason schedule for the rest of the league. Extra practice time is predictably met with lukewarm enthusiasm from most players — particularly veterans reporting to Owings Mills next Wednesday — but an extra week of workouts and the shortening of that summer dead period when players are on their own is any coach’s dream.

The longer training camp prompted head coach John Harbaugh to schedule two sets of joint practices: the first with the Los Angeles Rams in Owings Mills on Aug. 6 and 7 and the other sessions in Indianapolis before Baltimore’s third preseason game on Aug. 20. These will be the first joint practices for the Ravens since they traveled to Philadelphia to work with the Eagles in 2015 and will provide Harbaugh and his coaching staff a useful litmus test, especially against the talent-laden Rams coming off an NFC West title last year.

“We don’t have to pack quite as much into that time,” Harbaugh said last month, “which I think is a plus for us — especially with a young team and a young quarterback and three new receivers. It should benefit us.”

Harbaugh has already confirmed that most veterans will not play in the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio, but rookie first-round quarterback Lamar Jackson and the rest of a franchise-record-tying 12-man draft class playing in an extra preseason game has value. Considering how poorly the offense played for much of 2017 after Joe Flacco missed the entire preseason with a back injury, the veteran quarterback having an extra week of practice to continue building chemistry with newcomer receivers Michael Crabtree, John Brown, and Willie Snead is a bonus. And even a defense returning all but one player (reserve defensive back Lardarius Webb) from last season will benefit from extra sessions with new defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale and his revamped schemes.

But that all comes with a risk.

Players aren’t immune to injuries when even working out on their own, of course, but Harbaugh will be tasked with striking the right balance between maximizing the extra opportunities and keeping his team healthy before kicking off the 2018 season against Buffalo on Sept. 9. It’s no secret that injuries have been crippling at times with Baltimore ranking sixth or higher in adjusted games lost in two of the last three seasons, an undeniable factor in not making the playoffs since 2014.

Measures have been taken in recent years to combat health concerns by revamping the offseason conditioning program and installing natural grass at M&T Bank Stadium, but the Ravens had a whopping 13 players on injured reserve by the time the 2017 season kicked off in Cincinnati last September. That number didn’t include tight end Dennis Pitta’s career-ending hip injury in the spring or Flacco’s summer-long absence and preceded season-ending injuries to Marshal Yanda and Brett Urban in the first three weeks of the regular season.

Injuries are inevitable in such a violent game with each competitive rep presenting the risk for something to go awry, whether it’s one player rolling into another’s leg, a big hit, or a simple misstep trying to cut upfield. That’s why Harbaugh will pick his spots as he’s annually done to try to keep players — particularly his veterans — as healthy as possible.

The extended preseason should provide more opportunities for that built-in rest as well.

“More is not always more,” Harbaugh said. “We’re going to get more because of the time, but too much more would be too much. The ability to space that out a little bit, the fact that we can go hard and recover a little more because we have a little more time to do that is going to be a plus for us.”

A bigger plus would be a healthier roster when the real games begin, which will require disciplined planning and more luck than in recent years.

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Ravens sign all eight Day 3 draft picks

Posted on 05 May 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens have wasted little time signing most of their team-record-tying 12 draft picks to four-year contracts.

Baltimore announced agreements with eight selections on Saturday, a list comprised of fourth-round cornerback Anthony Averett, fourth-round linebacker Kenny Young, fourth-round wide receiver Jaleel Scott, fifth-round wide receiver Jordan Lasley, sixth-round safety DeShon Elliott, sixth-round offensive tackle Greg Senat, sixth-round center Bradley Bozeman, and seventh-round defensive end Zach Sieler.

The Ravens must still sign first-round tight end Hayden Hurst, first-round quarterback Lamar Jackson, third-round offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr., and third-round tight end Mark Andrews, but those tasks are considered little more than formalities with the structure of the current collective bargaining agreement in place since 2011. As first-round selections, both Hurst and Jackson will carry fifth-year options the Ravens will have the choice to exercise for the 2022 season.

General manager Ozzie Newsome had the entire 2017 draft class signed by May 17 last season.

Doubling up on joint practices

The Ravens hadn’t conducted any practices with other teams since 2015, but they’ll double up in ending that drought this summer.

Asked about his team’s already-announced plan to practice with the Los Angeles Rams for two days ahead of the Aug. 9 preseason game at M&T Bank Stadium, head coach John Harbaugh revealed the Ravens will also practice in Indianapolis ahead of their Aug. 20 contest at Lucas Oil Stadium.

“Both of those coaches called us,” said Harbaugh, referring to Rams head coach Sean McVay and new Colts head coach Frank Reich. “We have the longer training camp this year with our extra preseason game with the Hall of Fame game [on Aug. 2]. The way the training camp laid out, it looked like it would be good for us to create some breaks in the schedule where we could go against somebody else and organize the practices appropriately. We have to do a good job of that.”

The Ravens hosted joint practices with San Francisco in 2014 and practiced against the Eagles in Philadelphia in 2015.

Odds & ends

Nine days after being drafted, Jackson said he hasn’t yet talked to starting quarterback Joe Flacco. … Harbaugh said he was impressed with Jackson’s accuracy and “natural arm talent” during rookie minicamp. … Andrews having Type 1 diabetes wasn’t a consideration in the Ravens’ decision to draft him, according to Harbaugh. … Several players noted the challenge of the temperature rising north of 90 degrees on Friday, but Harbaugh was pleased with the rookies’ conditioning level and noted there were no major or soft-tissue-related injuries during the minicamp.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 23-16 win over Indianapolis

Posted on 26 December 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens clinching their first winning season since 2014 after a 23-16 victory over Indianapolis, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Critics say this defense hasn’t been very good when it hasn’t forced turnovers, but isn’t that true of many units? Sure, there’s been some variance in the overall performance, but give me the group more dynamic taking the ball away over a more “consistent” unit that’s ordinary in that department.

2. The offense continues to play at a higher level in December, but the Ravens have scored just three touchdowns in seven trips inside the red zone the last two weeks since going 4-for-4 against Pittsburgh. Justin Tucker field goals in that area aren’t going to cut it in January.

3. Both Alex Collins and Michael Campanaro put the ball on the ground against the Colts, but the Ravens have committed only two turnovers in the last six games since the bye. That’s strong evidence supporting the notion that this offense was way too conservative through the first three months.

4. Maurice Canady saved the day with his fourth-down pass breakup to preserve a one-score lead, and his emergence sure gives the Ravens some good cornerback depth moving forward. Jimmy Smith, Brandon Carr, Marlon Humphrey, Tavon Young, and Canady are all under contract for 2018.

5. Jack Doyle didn’t put up monster numbers, but he was the latest tight end to give the Ravens issues in coverage. It’s tough not to be nervous about that deficiency with a potential matchup with Kansas City’s three-time Pro Bowl selection Travis Kelce looming in the wild-card round.

6. I understand frustration and even boos when a player isn’t performing, but the Bronx cheers for Breshad Perriman’s 8-yard reception in the third quarter felt a little too mean-spirited for my taste, especially since the guy has barely played since the bye anyway.

7. Speaking of disappointing early picks, Maxx Williams caught his first touchdown in over two years. He’s done a solid job as a blocker this year, but that’s not exactly what Ozzie Newsome had in mind when he traded up in the second round of the 2015 draft to take him.

8. Buck Allen has averaged an ordinary 3.7 yards per carry overall, but he’s done a solid job in short-yardage situations despite not being a bruising back. He was initially stuffed on fourth-and-1 on the opening drive and reached for the first down with second effort.

9. Remember when some wondered if Kamar Aiken might eventually develop into a poor man’s version of Anquan Boldin after leading the Ravens with 75 receptions in 2015? He has 14 catches on 42 targets with Indianapolis this season and a combined 43 catches in 30 games since that campaign.

10. Frank Gore was never viewed as the best running back in the NFL at any point, but the 34-year-old is closing in on 14,000 career rushing yards in an era when backs increasingly have a shorter shelf life. Longevity is an underrated quality, especially in this sport.

11. The Ravens could end up making a January run, but their strength of victory ranks 13th of 16 AFC teams and would still be 10th if you remove the two wins over 0-15 Cleveland. Even after their early injuries, not making the playoffs with this schedule would be extremely disappointing.

12. Baltimore surprisingly broke out its black jerseys despite having already worn the alternate tops two other times this year. The black-on-white look — the Ravens’ seventh different uniform combination of the season — is an underrated one.

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Flacco’s play on rise as Ravens grind closer to playoff spot

Posted on 24 December 2017 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens were hardly impressive in their 23-16 win over Indianapolis.

Playing a three-win team in rainy and windy conditions at M&T Bank Stadium wasn’t exactly a recipe to earn style points on Saturday anyway, and there was much to pick apart from the performance.

The defense continued its up-and-down play since the season-ending injury suffered by Jimmy Smith in Week 13, missing too many tackles and failing to consistently pressure Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett behind a decimated offensive line. The running game wasn’t much of a factor and averaged just 2.6 yards per carry in the fourth quarter before three kneel-downs to seal the win. Even the normally-superb special teams had a punt blocked late in the fourth quarter that could have cost the Ravens the game.

“We made a number of mistakes, starting with me,” said head coach John Harbaugh, citing his decision to decline a holding penalty before Indianapolis converted a fourth down in the final quarter. “Things that gave them a chance, especially in the fourth quarter. There are things that we have to get better at and work on.”

The Ravens will need a more complete performance next week to beat Cincinnati, an AFC North rival who’s winding down a disappointing season but has given them as much trouble as any team over the last few years. It only gets tougher after that if Baltimore does advance to the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

But the most encouraging trend of the last month continued Saturday as Joe Flacco turned in his fourth consecutive good performance. It’s no secret that the 10th-year quarterback is in the midst of one of the most trying seasons of his career, but he looks healthier and his play down the stretch has reflected that.

Despite the less-than-ideal weather conditions, Flacco completed 76.3 percent of his passes against the Colts and threw for 237 yards and two touchdowns without an interception. It was the fourth straight game in which Flacco has thrown for at least that many yards after doing so only once in the first 11 contests of 2017. He’s thrown seven touchdowns and just one interception over those four weeks, raising his season passer rating from 74.2 to 81.4. He’s making plays while protecting the football, the opposite of what we saw for much of the season.

It wasn’t perfect on Saturday as he lamented his bad misfire to tight end Nick Boyle near the goal line in the second quarter as well as the offense scoring just two touchdowns despite five 10-play drives of 50 or more yards. But this is the Flacco more closely resembling the quarterback who helped guide the Ravens to six playoff appearances in his first seven seasons.

“I just feel, as an offense, we’re starting to hit our stride,” said Flacco, who’s showing better mobility than we saw in the first half of the season after his summer back injury. “I’m playing more consistent. The receivers are getting open quick. The line’s playing really well together. The backs are running the ball really hard, and it’s good to come out of these games and have some things that we left out there but still a lot of things that we did well.”

Most impressive about Flacco’s rise has been him doing it with a less-than-ideal supporting cast. The Ravens are currently playing with one established NFL wide receiver in Mike Wallace, who recorded his fourth straight game with at least 60 receiving yards. Flacco’s scores went to two players — Michael Campanaro and Maxx Williams — who hadn’t caught touchdown passes in over two years.

The offensive line has improved since the bye week, but its season-long trials are hardly a secret.

And while Marty Mornhinweg deserves credit for his improved unit now scoring 23 or more points in six consecutive games, the offensive coordinator still makes some calls — particularly inside the red zone — that make you scratch your head.

Through all of this, Flacco has rebounded from his own struggles and is making it work.

Saturday’s clunky overall performance won’t raise anyone’s confidence level about the Ravens making a deep run in January, but they got the job done in the end and are now one victory away from the opportunity to roll the dice. And with Flacco now playing his best football of the season and owning a stellar track record in January, the Ravens will take their chances having won five of their last six.

“One good game, and we’re in,” said linebacker Terrell Suggs, referencing next week’s tilt with the Bengals. “If we win, we’re in. Everybody knows that second season, we become a different team — a special team.

“‘January Joe’ — we’re all looking forward to seeing him. Absolutely.”

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