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Yanda “to think about things” regarding future with Ravens

Posted on 17 January 2020 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The future remains bright for the Ravens despite their stunning playoff loss to Tennessee, but one of their cornerstone players must still decide whether to return next season.

Eight-time Pro Bowl selection Marshal Yanda remains one of the best guards in football late in his brilliant career, but head coach John Harbaugh confirmed the 35-year-old will “think about things going forward” before potentially playing a 14th season. Yanda remains under contract for the 2020 campaign and is scheduled to make $7 million in base salary after signing a one-year extension last spring.

“I’m all for him playing Hall of Fame football for another year if he so chooses, and I did tell him that,” said Harbaugh, who spoke to Yanda after Saturday’s loss. “I let him know that, and we had a good hug and stuff. But he’ll do what’s right for his family, and whatever he does, we’ll respect it. I just couldn’t say enough good things — great things — about Marshal Yanda and his family.”

Graded as the NFL’s fourth-best guard by Pro Football Focus and selected to his eighth Pro Bowl in the last nine seasons, Yanda was voted a second-team All-Pro by the Associated Press and named to the All-NFL team by the Pro Football Writers of America after the Ravens offense set numerous franchise records and an NFL single-season rushing mark. The 2007 third-round pick out of Iowa ranks fourth on the franchise’s career Pro Bowl selections list behind only Ray Lewis, Jonathan Ogden, and Ed Reed, three of his former teammates already enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Since missing most of the 2017 season with a broken ankle, Yanda has assessed his future on an annual basis, often noting the importance of being healthy at the conclusion of his career. The veteran lineman has missed only one game over the last two years, last month’s regular-season finale in which Harbaugh rested him and several other key starters.

Another Pro Bowl berth or two would fortify his Hall of Fame case at a position that’s historically been underrepresented in Canton, but Yanda takes pride in being a team-first player, making the disappointment of last Saturday’s loss and Baltimore’s bright prospects for 2020 more compelling reasons for his return than chasing an individual accomplishment. A Super Bowl XLVII champion and father of three children, the Iowa native didn’t shy away from calling the 2019 Ravens the best team on which he’d ever played during the season.

“I am not assessing my whole career and whatnot, but it definitely is a tough way to end,” said Yanda, who wouldn’t address his future immediately after Saturday’s loss. “How hot we ended the season, a 12-game [winning] streak, to have them come into our house and beat us at home, that’s tough.”

Judon’s free agency

Addressing the front seven of the defense is expected to be one of Baltimore’s top offseason tasks with Pro Bowl outside linebacker Matthew Judon headlining a list of unrestricted free agents.

With Judon coming off a career year that included a team-high 9 1/2 sacks and a fourth-place league finish in quarterback hits (33), Harbaugh acknowledged re-signing him would be “pretty hard” despite the Ravens “very much” wanting him back for 2020 and beyond.

“There’s no question that that’s a priority for us, and that’s something that’s really important to us,” Harbaugh said. “We’re going to try to get as many of these guys re-signed as we can. Matt is probably right at the top of the list for sure. There are a lot of things that can go into that as we all know — the business part of it.”

Offensive assistants staying put

Quarterbacks coach James Urban and tight ends coach Bobby Engram both interviewed for coaching positions with Philadelphia before withdrawing from consideration, according to Harbaugh.

Urban was a candidate for the Eagles’ offensive coordinator job while Engram had been linked to their wide receivers coach opening, a position he held with Baltimore from 2014-18. The Ravens keeping their coaching staff intact after a 14-2 season would have to be considered a mild upset after offensive coordinator Greg Roman and defensive coordinator Wink Martindale unsuccessfully interviewed for head coach openings with Cleveland and the New York Giants respectively.

“It looks like our staff is going to stay together. I can tell you that,” Harbaugh said. “I’m not saying anything couldn’t happen. There are always things brewing for a certain period of time.”

Pro Bowl plans

After agreeing to coach the AFC squad, Harbaugh said he hasn’t actively recruited any of Baltimore’s 13 Pro Bowl selections to play in next week’s spectacle, but the expected NFL MVP will indeed be going to Orlando.

Noncommittal about his Pro Bowl status after the loss to the Titans, second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson will play in the NFL’s exhibition for the stars. For now, the Ravens are scheduled to have 12 players take part in the game after right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. was added to the AFC roster and cornerback Marcus Peters dropped out earlier this week.

“Lamar wants to go. He’s fired up. I did know that,” Harbaugh said. “He told me he couldn’t wait. He didn’t have anything planned. He had no arrangements made. He didn’t know anything. He didn’t know what day he had to be there yet, but he’s excited.”

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Jackson returns from illness for “very vocal” Ravens practice

Posted on 02 January 2020 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — As Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson returned to practice Thursday after a recent bout of the flu, his teammates weren’t about to take it easy on him.

In what was described as a “very vocal” practice after having New Year’s Day off, the Ravens showed no shortage of competitiveness despite not knowing which team they’ll play in the divisional round until this weekend. The competition was evident as Jackson faced a Baltimore defense fully aware that he’d been under the weather over the previous few days.

“He threw a little incompletion. I was like, ‘Where’s the Pepto-Bismol?’” said cornerback Marlon Humphrey as he laughed. “It was a lot of chirping like that. It was fun.”

With the coaching staff preparing for one of three potential opponents — the lowest advancing seed among Houston, Buffalo, and Tennessee — behind the scenes, Ravens players have competed against one another with a focus on their own fundamentals in practices this week.

Jackson wasn’t the only one who returned to practice on Thursday as tight end Mark Andrews (ankle), offensive lineman James Hurst (arm), defensive back Jordan Richards, and defensive end Chris Wormley were all present and working. Of course, Jackson getting back into a rhythm is a priority after he sat out the Week 17 win over Pittsburgh and was under the weather for several days.

“We get a lot of the individual work like we do every single day,” said quarterbacks coach James Urban about preparations for the postseason. “I don’t see any reason to change at this point. We’re certainly aware that he hasn’t taken a snap in however long it’s been in a real game. I don’t have any concerns there. Just the dropping back and throwing, we’re getting good work with that today and tomorrow.”

Running back Mark Ingram (calf), wide receiver Marquise Brown, tight end Hayden Hurst, defensive back Brandon Carr, and guard Ben Powers remained sidelined during Thursday’s practice.

Head coach John Harbaugh will meet with the media after Friday’s practice and then give players the weekend off before the Ravens ramp up preparations for their divisional-round opponent next week.

“Harbaugh came and told us, ‘It’s not really time to rest.” [Matthew] Judon echoed that, too, ‘It’s not really time to rest. It’s time to get a little bit better,'” Humphrey said. “We all went out there with a great attitude thinking, ‘Let’s just try to get better today, tomorrow, and then get two days off and come back and get ready to do it.’ Sometimes, to get yourself going, you just have to talk a little trash to the offense. Then, they score and celebrate.

“We just had a lot of fun today.”

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Questions about the 2019 Ravens — and how Baltimore coaches answered

Posted on 23 October 2019 by Luke Jones

The Ravens are over .500 at their bye week for the first time since 2014, creating plenty of optimism for the rest of the 2019 season and beyond.

Below are some answers to questions posed to Baltimore coaches this week and some thoughts on what they had to say:

What about the current state of the pass rush?

Defensive line coach Joe Cullen: “Hits aren’t good enough. We want to get [quarterbacks] down. Obviously, you want to affect the quarterback. The other day we had one sack, but I thought we affected that quarterback similar to the [Patrick] Mahomes game a year ago when we had a lot of hits, hurries, and it flustered him a little bit. Now, obviously, we’d like to get him down, and we will. We’ll keep working on that, but we just have to keep working together. Sometimes it’s the rush not getting there, and we have great coverage. Sometimes the rush is really good, maybe the coverage [isn’t], but when we hone in on our rush and our coverage is working like it did the other day, the sacks will come. It’s like a hitter. He hits a line drive off the wall, and he’s not going back to the dugout all upset. The home runs will come, just like the sacks will come. As long as you keep doing the little things – getting off the ball, making your moves, powering if you’re a power rusher and then making sure the rush lanes are all involved, and when you blitz, blitz; things of that nature – they’ll come.”

My take: The Ravens are tied for fourth in the NFL with 45 quarterback hits and have five fewer sacks than any other team with at least 40 quarterback hits this season, lending credence to Cullen’s general point about some regression to the mean being inevitable. However, Baltimore entered Week 7 with the highest blitz rate in the NFL while ranking only 23rd in pressure rate, according to Pro Football Focus. Hitting the quarterback after the ball is out doesn’t mean the play was disrupted, a reality that becomes more costly when relying on blitzes that will compromise coverage in the back end of the defense if they don’t get home. The quality of the pass rush is probably better than its No. 25 ranking in sacks (12) would indicate, but the number of hits is likely buoyed with more rushers being sent on average. The Ravens can expect tighter coverage on the back end with the addition of Marcus Peters and the return of Jimmy Smith, but the loss of Pernell McPhee puts even more pressure on Eric DeCosta to try to find some pass-rushing help by Tuesday’s trade deadline.

How impressive is Lamar Jackson’s ability to avoid hard contact when he takes off?

Quarterbacks coach James Urban: “I’m pleased that he’s been able to avoid the big hits, of course. Listen, he has a unique ability. Within that, we talk about getting all you can get, and then get down or get out [of bounds]. And you see him routinely trying to get outside, and we’re trying to do those sorts of things to avoid some of those hits. But for the most part, I would say that it’s him sticking to our game plan and how we talk about things.”

My take: You might be able to count on one hand the number of times Jackson has taken a hard hit as a runner that made you hold your breath this year as he’s been coached to avoid cutting back toward the middle and offensive coordinator Greg Roman rarely calls designed Jackson runs between the tackles. However, Jackson ranks 21st overall in rushing attempts, 17th in pass attempts, and ninth in most sacks taken this season, a high volume of plays in which the ball is in his hands for an extended period of time. It’s worth noting Kyler Murray, Andy Dalton, and Matt Ryan have totaled more plays in which they’ve attempted a pass, taken a sack, or run the ball, which would support Jackson’s workload — while unique — hardly being out of control. Quarterbacks are susceptible to injuries in the pocket or as a runner, but the Ravens have seemingly done a good job trying to minimize risk while understanding anyone can be injured on any given play and not trying to eliminate what makes Jackson so special.

Why is Patrick Onwuasor better at the weak-side inside linebacker spot than at the “Mike” position? 

Linebackers coach Mike Macdonald: “I think he’s just more natural at the dime spot … or “Will” — whatever you want to call it. What happens is when you’re over there, you’re a little bit more on the edge of the defense. There’s a little bit more blitzing to be involved in. He’s a great blitzer, so you’re really asking him to do the things that he’s naturally really gifted at doing, using his length, that sort of thing. Yes, I’d say dime is more of his natural spot, and you can see it in his production.”

My take: The Ravens severely miscalculated what they had at inside linebacker this offseason following the free-agent departure of C.J. Mosley, but the veteran signings of Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort have stabilized the position in a matter of weeks. Macdonald revealed Onwuasor played roughly half of the Pittsburgh game with a high ankle sprain, but the fourth-year linebacker should be back for the New England game. A three-man rotation should keep each player fresh and allow defensive coordinator Wink Martindale to play to each individual’s strengths while continuing to use sub packages with one or even no linebackers on the field. Onwuasor had 5 1/2 sacks last season, so the move back to his original position could be a meaningful boost to the pass rush.

How do you explain Miles Boykin’s slow start after such a strong summer from the third-round rookie wide receiver?

Wide receivers coach David Culley: “During training camp and during the preseason, we didn’t really show a whole lot on offense. As the volume started coming in this offense — and I’ve always felt this way — as a wide receiver, it’s probably the toughest position because of the run game and the pass game when it comes to learning everything that you need to know. I think the volume got him a little bit, which affected him thinking about things instead of just reacting. I think it was more so of him just not being as comfortable as he was early when he was just playing and reacting and not thinking about things. But as the offense got more and more [complex], he started thinking about things, and I think that had a lot to do with that. But I think right now at this point, I think he’s in a good place with that.”

My take: What we’ve seen with Boykin is admittedly what I expected from fellow rookie Marquise Brown after the first-round pick missed the entire spring and a large chunk of the summer recovering from January foot surgery. Wide receivers making the jump from college to the pros is a difficult adjustment, but the good news is Boykin has reeled in his two longest receptions of the season over the last two games. Jackson could really use a steadier No. 3 option behind tight end Mark Andrews and Brown in the passing game, and Boykin is a logical candidate with his combination of size and speed.

How is Bradley Bozeman holding up as the starting left guard?

Offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris: “Bradley has done a heck of a job, one heck of a job. I mean, you look at the people he’s had to block, from Week 1 to last weekend. He had to go against Chris Jones. He had to go against [Cameron] Heyward. He’s had to go against the young man that they activated last week from Alabama (Jarran Reed), his old teammate. He’s had the top inside people and has done one heck of a job. I’ve seen nothing but good growth. He’s improved as a puller. He’s improved as a good pass protector. We all make mistakes — coaches, players. We all have a little flaw here or there. The object is to correct it, and he’s correctable and works hard at it.”

My take: Considering how much concern the coaching staff had after giving lengthy looks to ex-Raven Jermaine Eluemunor and rookie fourth-round pick Ben Powers at left guard over the summer, the Ravens seem satisfied with Bozeman, who’s graded as the NFL’s 45th-best guard by PFF entering Week 8. His four-penalty showing against Cincinnati was ugly, but I don’t sense the same level of disenchantment from the coaching staff that I see from some fans on a weekly basis. The 2018 sixth-round pick from Alabama is far from a Pro Bowl lineman, but the reality around the league is that virtually every team has at least one spot bordering on problematic — or worse — in any given week.

How critical has Earl Thomas’ increasing comfort level been to the recent defensive improvement?

Defensive backs coach Chris Hewitt: “There was a lot of talk out there like he’s been making mistakes or whatever. But the first seven games now, seven games into it, he hasn’t busted any coverages. When he talks about his comfort level, it’s just about him being able to go out there and play free. But he hasn’t busted any coverages. He’s playing good football.”

My take: Any suggestion that Thomas hasn’t played well in his first year with the Ravens would be way off-base, but he’s recorded only one pass breakup since intercepting Ryan Fitzpatrick on the first defensive series of the season. Much of the criticism directed at Eric Weddle last season centered around him needing to make more plays on the ball, but we haven’t seen many splash plays from Thomas, even if chances have been rare. The six-time Pro Bowl safety recently commented that Martindale has given him the “green light” on defense, which you hope will lead to more game-changing plays. Thomas has graded as PFF’s 14th-best safety through Week 7, but his confidence in a more complex defensive system than what he was used to in Seattle appears to be growing, which should pay off in the second half of the season.

Is this the offensive revolution you envisioned prior to the season?

Head coach John Harbaugh: “As a great person once said, ‘Let he who has eyes, he who has ears…’ For those who are paying attention, there’s something pretty cool going on, and it’s right here in Baltimore. So, call it whatever you want. It’s pretty neat.”

My take: Taking nothing away from a coaching staff that wisely built an offensive system that caters to its quarterback’s strengths, Jackson himself is the “revolution” as he leads the NFL in yards per carry at 6.9. If you eliminate the 10 quarterback kneels he’s taken, Jackson is gaining 8.03 yards per rushing attempt. His passing has come back down to earth over the last few weeks, but this is still a 22-year-old quarterback who has already made substantial improvement as a passer and shows impressive intangibles in less than a full season of starts. I can’t wait to watch him for the rest of 2019 and beyond.

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Jackson looking comfortable, consistent in early days of Ravens camp

Posted on 28 July 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Whether forcefully directing a teammate where to line up or offering a few words to the second-team offensive line after a rash of pre-snap penalties, Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson looks in charge over the early days of training camp.

After leading Baltimore to a 6-1 finish and its first AFC North championship since 2012 last season, the 22-year-old isn’t deferring to anyone in his first full year as a starter. Despite a personality devoid of bravado or focus on individual accolades, this is his team now after last season’s soft opening that resulted in Jackson becoming the youngest quarterback in NFL history to start a playoff game.

“I wouldn’t say he didn’t know what he was doing, but it was his first couple of games in the NFL. Everything was just coming at him full speed,” wide receiver Willie Snead said. “A year later, he’s comfortable. He’s comfortable with the guys around him. He has command of the huddle, and we believe in him. I think that’s all that matters at this point. We just have to continue to grow with each other.”

Of course, the bulk of the attention will continue to be on the speedy Jackson’s development as a passer, the biggest key to his long-term success as a professional quarterback. Learning offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s new system built around his unique skill set this spring, Jackson’s passing was a mixed bag in the handful of practices open to reporters with periods of success offset by head-scratching inaccuracy on even the most basic throws. That pattern carried over to the first full-squad workout last Thursday with an ugly first 90 minutes followed by a more respectable finish to the day.

But after knocking off that rust — it was his first full-team practice in six weeks after all — Jackson has looked as steady as we’ve seen him throw the ball over the last three days. That’s not to say you’d confuse him with a 5,000-yard, 40-touchdown passer, but growth is evident while reminding ourselves it’s still July, a time of year that can serve as a great fooler around the league.

Practicing against arguably the best secondary in the league, Jackson hasn’t thrown an interception since the first practice when an errant throw on a rollout was picked off by reserve safety Chuck Clark. To suggest he’s picked apart the Ravens defense would be hyperbole, but he’s taking what’s there and giving his receivers chances to make plays, which is exactly what the coaching staff wants to see from its young quarterback.

“It’s consistency. Not just with production, but also with fundamentals, techniques, footwork, release,” said head coach John Harbaugh about the evaluation process. “I want to see a good release. Fewer and fewer of the not good releases — we all know what they look like — and more of the solid releases. We’re really seeing that.”

Asked Friday to describe how he’s evolved the most as a quarterback since his rookie season, Jackson was reluctant to delve into too many specifics, recognizing he has a long way to go. He did, however, acknowledge hearing his many critics this offseason and expressed the desire to “make them eat their words” by winning games and continuing to improve.

“Play-calling, timing,” Jackson said. “I’m just trying to get better right now. I don’t want to talk too much.”

His early practices have done the talking as his chemistry with Mark Andrews continues to grow with the second-year tight end making plays down the middle and easily looking like Baltimore’s best pass catcher. With first-round wide receiver Marquise Brown still not practicing, fellow rookie Miles Boykin has shown good speed and reliable hands while making plays — even some long ones — against starting members of the Ravens secondary. Jackson’s passing strength remains the middle of the field, but he’s even showing some improvement outside the numbers with much more work to be done there.

Yes, it’s very early, but the early success is better than the alternative for Jackson and his developing weapons.

Even his spiral — or lack thereof as doubters would scoff — looks better early on. Though he’s unlikely to ever spin the ball as seamlessly as Joe Flacco in his prime, the “ducks” — Jackson’s own description of his “horrible” passing last year — have been fewer and farther between. His passing remains a work in progress, of course, but the key is there being growth while understanding development isn’t always linear.

“We work on [his spiral] a lot, and it has improved dramatically,” quarterbacks coach James Urban said. “Some of it was adjusting to an NFL ball. Some of it was footwork and getting the body all connected, and that’s a continual process. I think that’s a continual process for many young quarterbacks.

“We would like the nice, tight, pretty spiral, but I don’t get overly concerned as long as it’s on time and in rhythm and an accurate throw. That’s way more important than how it looks.”

In a controlled practice setting where no one is allowed to touch the quarterback, you almost forget about Jackson’s special athleticism until he suddenly takes off and even a speed linebacker like Patrick Onwuasor can only shake his head and give the quarterback a fist bump after he effortlessly turns the corner to move the chains. That scrambling ability could easily become a crutch that could hinder his development if Jackson didn’t appear so focused on improving his throwing.

But that’s where we approach the fine line the Ravens and Jackson must navigate between trying to become a better passer — protecting himself in the process — and not shying away too much from what makes him special as a quarterback. Even owner Steve Bisciotti said this spring that Jackson would no longer be running 20 times per game, but Baltimore is sensibly going to do what it takes to win without any self-imposed quota of rushing attempts.

Ultimately, Jackson needs to be himself for the Ravens to thrive.

“My thing for him is I just don’t want him to get caught up in, ‘You have to be a pocket passer. You have to do this,'” said six-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas, who noted that Jackson has been “dropping dimes” early in camp. “You be who you are. You be special. If you have to take off, take off. Make the defense work. When you make a defense tired like that, then the game opens up, play-action opens up, the run game opens up. Everything opens up.”

This is when we once again remind ourselves that it’s early. Roman describes the first nine days of training camp as “a big period of pouring concrete” with the offense still being installed. There are sure to be setbacks with Jackson only a series of inaccurate “ducks” or a few interceptions away from his critics saying, “I told you so,” but that’s the crucible of the NFL, especially for anyone breaking the norm.

Opinions are widespread about his ability and overall ceiling, but the prevailing sense within the organization is that Jackson will become as good as he’s capable of being. From his work ethic to his on-field maturity, the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner is described as wanting to be great by countless people inside the building.

That drive and his vivacious personality are what have made teammates — and coaches — gravitate to him so quickly.

“I look back at being 22 years old and could only have hoped to have Lamar Jackson’s poise and balance, sense of proportion,” Harbaugh said. “He just is who he is, and he doesn’t get flustered, doesn’t get fazed. It’s never too big for him. He keeps it about what’s important.

“I’m kind of blown away by that part of it with him.”

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Jackson’s development headlines pronounced transition for Ravens

Posted on 17 April 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — With former Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco practicing for the first time as a Denver Bronco more than 1,600 miles away this week, Lamar Jackson and the Ravens are in a much different place than they were a year ago.

Before taking over as the starting quarterback in the middle of the season and helping lead Baltimore to its first AFC North championship in six years, Jackson was just winding down the pre-draft process at this time last year, still unsure where his NFL journey would begin. The 22-year-old sighed in relief and laughed Tuesday as he was reminded of that “exhausting” time before former general manager Ozzie Newsome made him the 32nd overall pick of the 2018 draft.

Of course, Flacco’s departure is far from the only notable change for the Ravens, who have a new general manager in Eric DeCosta and bid farewell to former Pro Bowl selections C.J. Mosley, Eric Weddle, and Terrell Suggs as well as 2018 sack leader Za’Darius Smith and two starting wide receivers this offseason. For an idea of just how stark the transition is, five of the six players made available to media for the start of the offseason program last year are no longer with the organization.

But all eyes are on Jackson, in terms of his development entering his second season and how that impacts the revamped Ravens’ chances of repeating as division champions after so many roster changes.

“If you were to study how [players] walk into the building as a rookie and then how they walk into the building as a second-year player, you’ll see a huge difference,” safety Tony Jefferson said. “I know it was for me [in Arizona], and I know it was for a lot of the rookies last year.

“Lamar is our quarterback. It’s his team. We’re following his lead. We know how big of a leader he can be and how special he can be on the football field. We’re dependent on him, and we know he’s putting in the work that’s needed.”

There was much intrigue about Jackson’s offseason as he worked with personal quarterback coach Joshua Harris in Florida for the second straight offseason. The 6-foot-2, 212-pound quaterback said he worked five days per week and threw to a group of wide receivers that included Ravens teammate and 2018 fifth-round pick Jordan Lasley and former Louisville teammate Jaylen Smith, who projects as a late-round pick in this year’s draft.

It’s no secret Jackson needs to improve his accuracy after completing just 58.2 percent of his passes as a rookie and 57 percent over his three seasons at Louisville. His offseason focus has been on maintaining a wide base in his legs — a point of emphasis with Ravens quarterbacks coach James Urban — and throwing more out-breaking routes after he showed much more accuracy with passes over the middle of the field to his tight ends and slot receiver Willie Snead.

Asked to play meaningful games for a contending team and operating out of an offense that wasn’t fully built around him, Jackson acknowledged the breakdown of his passing mechanics and footwork that would lead to off-target throws during his rookie season. Refining those mechanics will be key in maximizing the special speed and athleticism he displays at the quarterback position.

“It had a lot to do with it,” said Jackson of his fundamentals. “I would probably get lazy, try to make things happen with just my arm, not following through with my leg, and it showed a lot. I would throw an inaccurate ball.”

With the Ravens still a few weeks away from beginning organized team activities, it’s difficult to gauge how much progress Jackson has made as a passer from last year. After saying he was throwing “a lot better” this offseason, even Jackson acknowledged the test won’t begin until OTAs and beyond. He and his teammates will also be learning a new offense as coordinator Greg Roman has rebuilt the system “from the ground up” to best suit the young quarterback.

Still, teammates have observed a more confident Jackson seemingly at ease with the great responsibility of knowing he’s the starting quarterback from the first day of voluntary workouts. Perhaps the best indicator of that demeanor is the impression he’s made with new Ravens running back Mark Ingram, who played eight seasons with Drew Brees. Ingram said Jackson has already picked his brain about the future Hall of Fame quarterback as the two shared the same flight to Baltimore this week.

“He wants to get here early, get in the film room, study,” Ingram said. “He’s a hard worker, and he’s just a good dude. He’s fun to be around. He’s one of the guys. That’s very refreshing to be able to see that from him — that he’s young, but he still is mature. He’s mature, has his mind right, wants to study film, wants to be the best quarterback he can be and the best player he can be.

“I think the sky is the limit for him.”

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Patience — and skepticism — warranted as Ravens’ fun 2018 ride comes to end

Posted on 08 January 2019 by Luke Jones

The 2018 Ravens were weird but fun, something that shouldn’t be forgotten in the aftermath of the ugly wild-card playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.

Winning its first AFC North championship in six years and returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2014, Baltimore completed one of the more memorable in-season turnarounds in team history. Faced with a three-game losing streak and a hip injury to longtime quarterback Joe Flacco at the bye week, head coach John Harbaugh and his coaching staff turned to rookie Lamar Jackson and zigged while the rest of the pass-happy NFL zagged with the Ravens rushing for over 1,600 yards in their final seven games, nearly twice as many as their total from the first nine weeks of the season. The coaches deserve much credit for remaking the offense on the fly, and that drastic change was embraced by players, including a group of wide receivers who were marginalized overnight.

However, that ride came to a screeching halt Sunday with the Chargers defense smothering the Ravens for the first 50 minutes of play, holding them to three points and 83 total yards through three quarters in their own stadium. It was obvious Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley figured out the unconventional Baltimore running game the second time around, but the Ravens were soundly beaten in their one-on-one matchups as well, especially on the offensive line. The offense was thoroughly outcoached and outplayed, and it was too late by the time the Ravens managed two late touchdowns against a sleepy Los Angeles defense to make the final score look respectable.

With an enjoyable season coming to an end, patience is warranted, but skepticism is fair in assessing the state of the Ravens moving forward. The first playoff appearance in four years typically signals brighter days ahead, but this season was as much a last hurrah for some key individuals as it was the start of a new chapter.

Change is already underway as longtime lieutenant Eric DeCosta becomes the general manager with Ozzie Newsome stepping aside after 23 years in charge of football operations. That should be as seamless a transition as you’ll find in this position with DeCosta having been with the Ravens since their inception, but that doesn’t guarantee success or the absence of some hiccups along the way.

The Ravens have publicly expressed their intentions of keeping Harbaugh, but rumors and speculation will persist until a contract extension becomes official. How his assistant coaches fit into that future also remains to be seen as Sunday wasn’t exactly a banner day for offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg.

We know Flacco is finished in Baltimore as Harbaugh eulogized the former Super Bowl MVP’s Ravens career minutes after Sunday’s loss, but he’s unlikely to be the only notable veteran player to depart. Retirement, free agency, or salary-cap decisions could lead to the exit of some combination of Marshal Yanda, Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley, Eric Weddle, Za’Darius Smith, Jimmy Smith, Brandon Carr, Michael Crabtree, John Brown, and Tony Jefferson. Much will depend on how dramatically DeCosta wants to reshape the roster and reset the salary cap in his first year calling the shots.

Regardless of other changes, Jackson’s development is obviously the biggest factor in determining the short-to-intermediate future and that will require some patience and perspective. The 22-year-old is a special talent who flashed much to like on his way to helping the Ravens win six of their last seven regular-season games, but significant questions about his ball security and passing ability cannot be overlooked because of the early team success. That was apparent Sunday as he fumbled three times and completed only three passes through three quarters until regrouping to throw two touchdowns in the final seven minutes to make the game interesting. His mental toughness to fight back in the closing minutes was admirable, but he looked in over his head for much of the day.

Jackson was hardly alone in the struggles as the offensive line was awful against the Chargers front, but it was a reminder that he has a long way to go. That’s OK, of course, as Flacco was far from stellar in his first few playoff games before becoming “January Joe” a few years later. Jackson’s first postseason performance really shouldn’t change anything as he was always going to need to make marked improvement, regardless of how far the Ravens advanced this January.

But what will the organization do to help him get there?

Assistant head coach Greg Roman deserves credit for implementing the same run-game schemes successfully used in his previous stops at San Francisco and Buffalo, but is Mornhinweg the right offensive coordinator for Jackson? It’s been much advertised that he and quarterbacks coach James Urban worked with a veteran Michael Vick in Philadelphia, but that was an eternity ago in NFL years. For what it’s worth, Mornhinweg’s arrival as the quarterbacks coach four years ago — with Marc Trestman as the offensive coordinator — coincided with an immediate statistical decline in Flacco after arguably his best season under Gary Kubiak in 2014.

Sunday was damning for Mornhinweg in terms of having no plan B as the Chargers seemingly knew what plays the Ravens were running in their second meeting in 15 days. However, Harbaugh has shown much faith in his offensive coordinator over these last few years, making it difficult to expect a change now as the head coach has newfound leverage with a division championship and playoff appearance.

The Ravens are likely to remain a run-first offense going forward, but more balance will be paramount. With his mobility, Jackson doesn’t need to become Peyton Manning to be very successful at this level, but his throwing mechanics, footwork, and ability to throw outside the numbers will be scrutinized even more next season. Before anything else, however, he needs to do a much better job protecting the football as he finished with 15 fumbles counting Sunday’s playoff game.

The offensive talent the Ravens add around Jackson will be just as important as his individual development. Contrary to the lazy narrative of the last six years being strictly about Flacco’s contract, the Ravens did a poor job building an offense around him. The organization used most of its early draft picks from 2013-17 on defense — with mixed results at best — and even gave out big contracts to defensive players at less valuable positions while the other side of the ball floundered with minimal resources. Flacco’s pending exit shouldn’t leave that truth forgotten.

The Ravens will have much more cap flexibility with a quarterback on a rookie contract for the next few years, but the defense will also be undergoing substantial change with several key veterans moving on sooner than later. In other words, it will be interesting to see if DeCosta and the organization evolve toward making offense the greater priority or whether Jackson will be asked to do less with more like his predecessor. Improving the interior offensive line and addressing the wide receiver position — again — will be just two of the priorities on the offensive side of the ball.

A new era has begun in Baltimore, one that warrants some patience with a new general manager, a number of potential veteran departures, and a talented 22-year-old quarterback. These are certainly interesting and exciting times at 1 Winning Drive.

But it’s fair to be skeptical as the Ravens hand the keys to Jackson, both for his own weaknesses and those of the organization in recent years.

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Jackson shows enough for Ravens to want to see more

Posted on 20 November 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens don’t need to apologize for Sunday’s strange 24-21 win over Cincinnati.

This is the same franchise that once won a playoff game — the 2009 wild-card round at New England — by 19 points despite completing just four passes for 34 yards. Coming off a three-game losing streak and needing a victory to preserve any realistic shot of making the playoffs, Baltimore did what it needed to do coming off the bye with an injured starting quarterback, running the ball 54 times against a Bengals defense that entered Week 11 ranked 29th in the NFL in allowing 5.0 yards per carry.

That shouldn’t be the knock on Lamar Jackson some have made it out to be after he ran for 117 of the Ravens’ 265 rushing yards, the fifth-highest total in franchise history. The rookie quarterback was far from perfect, but he was a big reason why they won the game, which is as much as you could hope for in his first NFL start coming in a virtual must-win situation. Making it more impressive was that his week of practice was interrupted by a Thursday trip to the hospital for stomach pains.

You obviously don’t need to be Sean McVay to recognize 27 rushing attempts — the most by an NFL quarterback since at least 1960 — being way too many to sustain on a weekly basis if you want Jackson to last, but his running ability is a large part of what makes him so appealing as a quarterback in the first place. He needs to learn to better protect himself, but those rushing yards still counted just the same to the Ravens’ success and shouldn’t be disqualified in assessing his play. Just ask Fran Tarkenton or Steve Young how important the ability to run was to their Hall of Fame careers.

Of course, Jackson the passer remains a major work in progress, but completing 13 of 19 throws for 150 yards is hardly an abomination at 7.9 yards per attempt. In contrast, Joe Flacco was 15 of 29 for only 129 yards in his rookie debut 10 years ago, and he turned out to be a legitimate NFL passer. Jackson throwing an interception as well as another pass that could have been picked in his 19 attempts is far from ideal, but his escape and scramble to find John Brown for 23 yards to set up a field goal in the final 20 seconds of the first half showed his ability to improvise that so many love. His inconsistent release point and footwork are problematic, but the 21-year-old completed four of five passes for 58 yards on Baltimore’s two second-half scoring drives, showing poise with the season all but hanging in the balance.

Jackson did enough for the Ravens to want to see more of him, but can he do more moving forward to create a full-blown quarterback controversy?

Head coach John Harbaugh hasn’t ruled out Flacco for Sunday’s game against Oakland, but he acknowledged it would be tough for the 33-year-old to play as he continues to recover from a hip injury sustained in Week 9. And given how Flacco has struggled when playing at less than 100 percent with  known injuries in the past, the Ravens shouldn’t hesitate to roll with the rookie against a 2-8 Raiders team sporting the league’s 30th-ranked scoring defense.

What the coaching staff asks Jackson to do this week could be telling about his chances of keeping the job for the rest of the season. Unlike the Bengals game that served as the guinea pig for a Jackson-led offense, Jon Gruden and the Raiders coaching staff will have a full game to identify his strengths and weaknesses, minimizing the element of surprise. A similar run-pass ratio would reinforce the idea of the coaching staff lacking confidence in his passing ability and would likely still work against the lowly Raiders, but you’d like to see offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg open up the game plan a little more to see how Jackson handles it. As quarterbacks coach James Urban said during the bye week, “If you put food on the plate and you eat it, then you get more food.”

Jackson showing meaningful growth in the passing department against the Raiders could create a fascinating decision for Harbaugh, who is coaching for his job. Does he show loyalty to the veteran quarterback who won him a Super Bowl and helped get him to the playoffs six times — albeit a long time ago — or go with the rookie quarterback whose development could provide a spark and potentially even save his job?

A poor performance by Jackson in his second start still resulting in a win would make an easy decision to go back to Flacco with three of the next four games coming on the road.

In a vacuum, a healthy Flacco very likely provides the Ravens a better chance to make the playoffs this year and undoubtedly gives them a better passing game, but the running game has clearly been superior with Jackson at quarterback, evident by rookie free agent Gus Edwards’ 115-yard day against the Bengals.

It’s complicated.

Will a less-than-100-percent Flacco — even when deemed healthy enough to return — playing behind the current offensive line really be an ideal fit, especially if the ground game remains so stagnant when Jackson isn’t on the field? Can the Ravens realistically hang tough on the road against Atlanta, Kansas City, and the Los Angeles Chargers using such a run-heavy approach with Jackson at quarterback? Does throwing the rookie into the fire of a playoff race provide valuable experience or potentially stunt his development and confidence if he’s just not ready to be a more consistent NFL passer?

Monday night’s epic showdown between Kansas City and the Los Angeles Rams reminded that there isn’t necessarily a wrong answer. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes certainly didn’t suffer from sitting out all but one game of his rookie season behind Alex Smith a year ago while Rams quarterback Jared Goff overcame a poor rookie year in 2016 to find much success with a new coaching staff.

In other words, we probably shouldn’t overreact to how Jackson plays or to the quarterback decision Harbaugh makes in the coming weeks — even though we undoubtedly will. No one knows what kind of NFL quarterback Jackson will ultimately become, but his debut showed enough to make it clear the Flacco era is rapidly winding down.

After watching Jackson against the Bengals, I’m looking forward to seeing more.

Whether that means next week, next month, or next year.

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Ravens still want to win, but weighing possible outcomes no easy chore

Posted on 13 November 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens want to make the playoffs and still have a reasonable chance to do so despite losing four of their last five games before their bye week.

Football Outsiders currently has their playoff chances at 32.7 percent while ESPN’s Power Football Index estimates their odds at 36.1 percent with Tennessee being the only No. 6 seed hopeful with better playoff odds (41.9 percent and 43 percent, respectively) in the AFC. The Ravens aren’t the favorites and must show improvement in multiple areas, but making it isn’t just a pipe dream, especially when sizing up the rest of the wild-card competition.

The hip injury to Joe Flacco has sparked much outside conversation about first-round pick Lamar Jackson and whether he might be the better option even if the former is healthy down the stretch, but head coach John Harbaugh expressed his stance on Monday as the Ravens returned to work to begin preparations for the Cincinnati Bengals. And it sounds as though he still believes Flacco — at least a healthy version of him — gives Baltimore its best chance to win now.

“If Joe can play, he’ll play,” Harbaugh said. “He’s rehabbing to play. Joe does not have to practice to play. He’s practiced the whole season; he’s practiced for 11 years. But he might practice, so we’ll just have to see how it goes. It’s up in the air; we’re not worried about it. We’re blessed with a good quarterback room, and that’s a good thing, that’s a positive thing.”

But let’s put Flacco’s Week 11 status and the current quarterback debate aside, at least until we have more information in the next few days.

What’s really best for the Ravens over the remainder of the 2018 season and beyond?

Let’s remove the long shot of Flacco suddenly recapturing his 2012 mojo and leading the Ravens to a Super Bowl — or even an AFC championship game appearance — from consideration. We’ll also throw out the possibility of Jackson taking over and being an instant superstar because history suggests that’s an unreasonable expectation. Either of those outcomes would alter the perception of both the quarterback position and the future of the coaching staff compared to where most opinions stand now.

The Ravens failing to make the playoffs and rolling with Flacco until falling out of the race — potentially leaving little time for Jackson to make an impression — would certainly be the path of least resistance to major changes. You’d like to see Flacco play more like he did in September to help his potential trade value, but keeping him for another year under this scenario would be a bigger indictment of Jackson’s behind-the-scenes development than a show of faith in what will be an expensive 34-year-old quarterback next season.

What if Flacco and the Ravens regroup to finish 9-7 and sneak into the playoffs for the first time since 2014? Would that be enough to call off what currently feels like the inevitable? Would a win in the wild-card round do it?

Flacco’s future would still be tied to Jackson’s readiness, but Harbaugh is only under contract through the 2019 season and you wouldn’t expect him to be receptive to another one-year extension, which could create a messy situation. Kansas City didn’t hesitate to trade 2017 Pro Bowl quarterback Alex Smith this past offseason to usher in the Patrick Mahomes era while Tennessee still fired head coach Mike Mularkey even after winning a first-round playoff game last January, leaving recent precedent to make bold changes — right or wrong — even after some modest success.

If you’re owner Steve Bisciotti, would the Ravens winning their remaining home games and squeaking out a road win over Atlanta, Kansas City, or the Los Angeles Chargers to slide into the playoffs drastically change your mind about a coach you admitted to considering firing a year ago or a quarterback whose eventual replacement was drafted this past April? Would you make a long-term commitment to keep Harbaugh if he forces your hand?

It’s a difficult call even when you remove sentimentality from the picture.

But that brings us to Jackson and how he fits into the decision-making process the rest of the way.

If the 21-year-old fills in for an injured Flacco on Sunday — or takes over in the next few weeks — and plays pretty well the rest of the way, wouldn’t you have to consider keeping a coaching staff that appears to have his development on the right track even if the Ravens fall short of the playoffs? Does it make sense to force Jackson to start over if he displays enough signs to suggest what the current staff is doing is working? Wasn’t one of the selling points of drafting the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner the fact that offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, quarterbacks coach James Urban, and assistant head coach Greg Roman had successfully worked with quarterbacks with similar skill sets in the past?

The current staff being let go at the end of 2018 is a potential scenario many pointed to when criticizing the Jackson pick in the first place.

That brings us to the possibility that Jackson really struggles while making some starts down the stretch, which wouldn’t be a shocking development for a rookie quarterback. That would mean no playoffs and easier justification for dismissing the current staff, but you’d also wonder how attractive the job might be to certain coaching candidates. Making any definitive judgments on Jackson based on a handful of games would be patently unfair, of course, but we’re also not talking about a Jared Goff, who was the first overall pick in Jeff Fisher’s final season with the Los Angeles Rams. Jackson would have fallen to the second round had Ozzie Newsome not traded up, so you do wonder how eager some candidates might be to work with him compared to an earlier pick like Baker Mayfield in Cleveland or even the opportunity to be part of the process to handpick your own quarterback elsewhere — like Harbaugh with Flacco a decade ago.

Then again, it was never a secret that Jackson would best fit a coach who embraces his unique skill set and will scheme accordingly rather than trying to fit him into a more conventional system. Those individuals are certainly out there.

Of course, this is all a big-picture look at the Ravens, something naturally done with an organization at a crossroads during its bye week. The current focus is on trying to figure out who’s going to be under center on Sunday and beating the Bengals, a team dealing with its own turmoil this week. Winning the next two games would put the long-term discussion on the back burner just like when the Ravens won in convincing fashion at Heinz Field to improve to 3-1 six weeks ago.

A lot can change in a short period of time.

“We’ll write the story of the Ravens’ 2018 season by how we play in the next seven weeks,” Harbaugh said on Monday. “That’s what our guys are juiced up for. All the other stuff is just fluff; it’s just noise; it’s just banter. It’s bar room talk.”

Maybe so, but these next seven weeks will be pivotal in determining the long-term outlook of the organization. Winning remains the priority for now, but how that relates to the future is more complicated.

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Questions plaguing the Ravens — and how assistant coaches answered

Posted on 07 November 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens are below the .500 mark at the bye for the fourth straight season, leaving plenty of questions for both the rest of the season and beyond.

Below are some answers to questions posed to Baltimore position coaches this week and some thoughts on what they had to say:

Why was the offensive line able to run-block so effectively even without six-time Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda last season and hasn’t this year?

Offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris: “Some things happen that way. There are situational [runs where] we’ve done very well. In the red zone, in two-minute when we’ve had to do that, we’re really prospering in the situational area. Some of the run game sometimes has sputtered. It’s a hit-and-miss [thing], and hopefully we can improve it. The good news is we have a game coming up against Cincinnati, and we’ll see how we’ll improve in that area.”

My take: Coaches rarely throw their players under the bus, but there obviously isn’t much insight offered here. I’ll never pretend to be an offensive line expert or anything close to it, but Matt Skura ranks 19th among qualified centers, Alex Lewis 63rd among qualified guards, and James Hurst 58th among qualified offensive tackles in Pro Football Focus’ grading system. The Ravens were justified not committing lucrative money to Ryan Jensen — who PFF ranks a disappointing 27th among qualified centers this year — but his physicality was critical for the running game a year ago. The solid play of rookie Orlando Brown Jr. could allow the Ravens to shift Hurst to left guard where he was a little better last season. As for D’Alessandris mentioning the red zone, the Ravens rank 12th in the NFL with a 54 percent success rate on runs inside the red zone, according to Sharp Football. That still doesn’t come close to making up for ranking 31st in yards per carry overall.

Why have the Ravens run the ball more effectively with Lamar Jackson in the game and not as well with their conventional offense?

Assistant head coach Greg Roman: “Anytime you have a dynamic quarterback that can run, you have an extra running back on the field, so you change the math so to speak. Now it gives you the ability to run called quarterback runs or you can run some quarterback-read-type plays. You’re essentially adding a number to the offense, which puts a little more stress on the defense. That’s really it in a nutshell. I think each week we’ve thrown some new stuff at people they haven’t seen before, so it takes them a little bit to adjust to that as well. The second tier of your question: I think guys are working hard. We’re grinding at it. We’re close on some things, but we just need a little bit more precision — little bit more precise coaching, playing, everything. We’re working in that direction. The thing we’re doing a very good job of is certain situational [runs]. Running situations, guys are doing a phenomenal job. I think we have the most short-yardage situations in the league. If not, I’d be very surprised. Guys are doing really good in that area, and when we have to run it, we’re doing a good job. We’re just not getting the big hits right now. Generally speaking, those things will happen just by everybody being a little bit more precise.”

My take: There isn’t much else to add here, but Roman was mostly right about short yardage as the Ravens have run the second-most plays of one yard to go for a first down or touchdown in the NFL behind only New England. Their 79 percent success rate on short-yardage runs is 10th best in the league, according to Sharp Football. It’s difficult imagining the Ravens getting where they want to go without finding that aforementioned precision when Jackson isn’t on the field. They’re just too predictable now.

Where have the takeaways gone after leading the NFL in that category last season?

Secondary coach Chris Hewitt: “The way I look at it is, we’re playing a little bit more man coverage than we’ve done in the past. We’re not playing as much zone as we’ve done in the past. We’re doing a lot more man coverage. When you’re playing as much man coverage as you are, you have your back to the quarterback. You can’t see the quarterback throwing the ball out of his hands and then be able to get a break on the ball. Now, when we do play zone coverages, and we get an opportunity to catch the ball, we have to catch the ball. Those are the things that, as far as with the sacks and takeaways, those things come in bunches.”

My take: This was an interesting point that has merit. I wrote at length about their lack of takeaways last week and acknowledged luck as being an undeniable variable in the Ravens only having seven takeaways in nine games. They’re tied for second in the NFL in passes defended, meaning they’re still batting passes at the line of scrimmage and getting their hands on footballs downfield. That said, it’s fair to question whether certain veterans have slowed down from previous seasons, turning potential takeaways until mere pass breakups. Perhaps even more surprising than the lack of interceptions has been the Ravens forcing only four fumbles this season after forcing 17 in 2017.

Why has the defense struggled to get off the field on third down in recent weeks?

Hewitt: “When you’re playing the type of coverages that we play and people are throwing the ball short and intermediate routes, I equate it to I’ll take the paper cut instead of somebody stabbing me in the heart, so I’m not trying to give up any big plays. We’ll take those little short-to-intermediate routes. Now, going with that, obviously we have to get off the field on third down. That’s something that we haven’t done a very good job of over the last two weeks or so. In this last game, we were 10-for-16 getting [off the field] on third down, and that can’t happen. For us to become the defense that we want to be — and we’re still a great defense, obviously, we’re still ranked No. 1, No. 2 against the pass or whatever we are as far as statistics are concerned — it’s all about limiting the opportunities for the offense to continue to keep those drives going. Again, we have to do better on third down. That’s the most important thing: We have to do better on third down, get ourselves off the field. But on first and second down, we can’t give them third-and-short, either. We have to do a better job on first and second down stopping them on first and second down. Now, we have third-and-long situations. Now, we can get a chance to go after the quarterback. We can play different zone coverages. Now, we get our eyes back on the quarterback, and now we can intercept some balls. But, as far as playing man coverages, sometimes you’re going to win some, sometimes you’re going to lose some. But, the ones that you lose, you want those to be five yards instead of 30 yards.”

My take: The Ravens have allowed the sixth-fewest number of completions of 20 or more yards and surrendered their first pass play of 40 or more yards of the season against the Steelers on Sunday. As for needing to avoid third-and-short situations, seven of Pittsburgh’s 10 conversions came on plays requiring six yards or less for a first down. The Ravens still rank fifth in the league in third-down defense, but it hasn’t been trending in the right direction against dynamic offenses the last three weeks.

Why has Joe Flacco’s play declined after such a promising September?

Quarterbacks coach James Urban: “Some of the big plays we’ve just missed on or just got edged or just didn’t have enough time, missed a couple throws that I’m sure he’d like to have back. But I think it’s not just one thing. I wish I could say, ‘It’s this one thing,’ or, ‘We need to do this more.’ That’s one thing that’s frustrating: We don’t turn the ball over and score 16 points [against Pittsburgh] — that’s not very common. But you miss two opportunities in the red zone. We were very, very good in the red zone for a long stretch. I think it’s a combination of several things. Joe was playing at a very high level. Joe is a tough sucker; he’s mentally tough. We just have to get over the hump. We just have to make a few more plays, and then it’ll just all happen naturally.”

My take: Remember how we were saying the early success for Flacco and the passing game wouldn’t continue without incorporating an effective running game? Since the Week 4 win at Pittsburgh, the 11th-year quarterback is averaging 5.8 yards per passing attempt and owns a 73.7 passer rating. He’s also leading the NFL in passing attempts, territory he shouldn’t approach. Haven’t we seen this movie before? You can harp on Flacco needing to be better all you want — that’s true, to be clear — but when has he ever played well for an extended period of time without a solid running game? That’s not magically changing.

Is it challenging for Flacco to find and maintain his rhythm with Jackson coming in and out of the game?

Urban: “It’s as much or as little as you allow it to be. That’s my experience. That goes back to years ago when Marty [Mornhinweg] and I were doing it with Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick. As much as you allow it to be a distraction, it’ll be a distraction. Joe has been great with that. He sees the production. He sees the plays that we’ve been able to use and utilize, and he understands that we’re just trying to get our best players out on the field to help us win.”

My take: This is a tricky balance since the Ravens haven’t shown the ability to sustain a ground game without the gadgetry involving Jackson. It’s impossible to quantify, but I don’t know how anyone could deny there being occasions when the offense loses its rhythm and becomes disjointed when the starting quarterback completes a couple passes and then is told to go out wide to stand as a receiver. As Andy Benoit of Sports Illustrated said this week, “When you watch Ravens film and see how the Lamar Jackson package impacts the down-to-down rhythm, there’s no way Flacco doesn’t hate it.”

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Struggling Ravens staring at present and future entering their bye week

Posted on 05 November 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti wasn’t going to fire John Harbaugh on Monday.

That was the emotional reaction for which some were clamoring, but what purpose would it have served right now? The Ravens are surely reeling after losing their third straight game and fourth of their last five, but this isn’t a 1-8 team with a fractured locker room that’s quit on its head coach either. Say what you want about how mediocre they’ve been since winning Super Bowl XLVII six years ago, but Harbaugh’s teams have continued to play hard — even in 2015 when a lousy start and an unthinkable run of injuries left them with a 5-11 record. And it’s not as though there’s a Sean McVay or Kyle Shanahan on the coaching staff waiting to take over.

The only team to fire its Super Bowl-winning coach in the middle of a season was the Baltimore Colts in 1972 when Don McCafferty was let go after refusing to bench Johnny Unitas. Do you really think Bisciotti wants to join a club frequented only by the late Robert Irsay? It’s just not a move a good owner makes with an individual who’s meant so much to the organization over the last decade.

But changes are likely coming at the end of the season without a dramatic turnaround — a kind of run not seen in these parts since 2012. The Ravens remain in the AFC wild-card race among a group of underwhelming teams, but aspiring to sneak in as the No. 6 seed with a 9-7 record — essentially the Buffalo Bills last season — shouldn’t alter anyone’s thoughts about the future short of a deep run in January.

The clock is ticking loudly on Harbaugh, Joe Flacco, and other veterans with high salary cap numbers, which is what makes these final seven weeks of the season so awkward. Is there a way for the Ravens to find an identity and right the ship while also hedging their bets for the future?

Truthfully, there isn’t much to say about a defense that still ranks very favorably statistically despite allowing 76 points over its last nine quarters of play against high-octane offenses. Forcing a few more turnovers would certainly help the cause, but the last three weeks are proof that good defense just doesn’t mean what it used to against top competition. None of the consensus top four teams in the NFL this year — the Los Angeles Rams, Kansas City, New Orleans, and New England — rank in the top 12 in total defense or the top nine in scoring defense. Minnesota’s top-ranked defense a year ago gave up 62 points in two playoff contests, including 38 to backup quarterback Nick Foles and Philadelphia in the NFC championship game.

Today’s game played at the highest level is more about scoring points than trying to prevent them. The best offenses are innovative and explosive with the rules only augmenting those qualities. Defense may win championships again one day, but not in the present.

That brings us to a Ravens offense that’s averaged 17.8 points per game since the Week 4 win over Pittsburgh. After an impressive September, Joe Flacco is averaging 5.8 yards per attempt and has a 73.7 passer rating over the last five games. The running game continues to rank 31st of 32 teams in yards per carry (3.6). Wide receivers have struggled to beat man coverage and consistently catch the football. And an offensive line that was already having its problems has been hampered by injuries over the last few weeks.

It’s enough to question whether an immediate change is in order at offensive coordinator, but Harbaugh has pretty clearly tied himself to Marty Mornhinweg — for better or worse. If he didn’t replace him at the end of the 2016 season or midway through last year, you probably shouldn’t expect it now. Running game guru Greg Roman or even quarterbacks coach James Urban could be argued as a potential replacement, but it’s not as though the Ravens have thrived so much in their respective areas either.

Improvement should come with the healthy returns of left tackle Ronnie Stanley and the versatile James Hurst, who could shift inside with rookie Orlando Brown Jr. holding up at the right tackle spot. The bye week should allow Ty Montgomery to further acclimate himself to the playbook and potentially bring more versatility to the running back position down the stretch.

The most interesting dynamic, however, will involve Flacco and Lamar Jackson as Harbaugh reiterated his desire Monday to see even more of the rookie quarterback after the bye week. The Ravens have run the ball more effectively with Jackson in the game than they have with their “traditional” offense this season, but his usage has also been criticized for occasionally upsetting the overall rhythm of the offense and making it too predictable. In Sunday’s loss to the Steelers, nine of Baltimore’s 16 total rushes came on Jackson’s 13 snaps, which reflects how little the Ravens ran on their other 48 offensive snaps.

The Ravens need to be able to run the ball more effectively when Flacco is the only quarterback on the field, and the coaching staff must be willing to let Jackson throw the ball more frequently if he’s going to be out there. Otherwise, it all becomes too predictable and makes life difficult for both quarterbacks.

It’s a delicate balance trying to get the most out of Flacco — who’s always been a rhythm quarterback at his best — while keeping Jackson involved. The Ravens want to use Jackson’s skills to try to win in the present, but his long-term development becomes more relevant each week. Perhaps that’s why Harbaugh didn’t shoot down the possibility of Jackson playing entire series — even more — down the stretch.

A few more losses will make that choice elementary as evaluating Jackson for the future will become paramount if the playoffs are out of reach. Until then, the Ravens won’t give up on their diminishing postseason chances, hoping a week off to recuperate and regroup will put them in position to make a final run with this coaching staff and this group of veteran players.

It’s likely Harbaugh’s last stand, but it’s one he deserves to have.

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