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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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Ravens reach contract extension with cornerback Tavon Young

Posted on 21 February 2019 by Luke Jones

At his introductory press conference last month, new Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta shared a desire to retain talented young players long before they reach free agency when the cost and risk of losing them rise.

Baltimore has apparently done that with slot cornerback Tavon Young, who tweeted Thursday he’s reached a contract extension with the organization that selected him in the fourth round of the 2016 draft. The Ravens announced they’ll hold a Friday morning press conference with DeCosta, head coach John Harbaugh, and an unnamed player expected to be the fourth-year defensive back.

According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the agreement is a three-year, $25.8 million contract with a max value of $29 million, which will make Young the highest-paid nickel corner in the NFL.

Young, 24, had one year remaining on his rookie contract and was scheduled to make just over $2 million in 2019 after reaching the proven performance escalator that’s in place for later-round draft picks. Despite missing the entire 2017 season with a torn ACL, the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Young has filled a significant role in the Ravens secondary, playing in 31 games and making 17 starts. He showed the ability to play outside as a rookie despite his diminutive size, but the presence of Marlon Humphrey, Brandon Carr, and Jimmy Smith allowed him to remain in the slot for his third NFL season.

Teammates and coaches have often praised Young’s toughness with defensive coordinator Wink Martindale even labeling him “a pit bull” last season.

“Tavon is very aggressive. He has great ball skills. He’s a good tackler,” secondary coach Chris Hewitt said last November. “He’s having that small linebacker [role] being able to cover and be able to play against the run as well. Having a slot corner be able to cover, that’s paramount in a league where you’re facing three wide-receiver sets every time.”

The Oxon Hill native and Temple product rebounded nicely from the knee injury this past season, appearing in 15 games and collecting 37 tackles, one interception, and five pass breakups. He returned two fumbles for touchdowns in the final month of the season before missing the playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers with a sports hernia that required offseason surgery.

Young being a priority for an extension is a reflection of today’s NFL in which most teams use the nickel package as their base defense. Despite missing two whole games and parts of others with the sports hernia, the slot cornerback played over 58 percent of Baltimore’s defensive snaps in 2018.

With veteran quarterback Joe Flacco set to be traded to Denver next month and the 22-year-old Lamar Jackson — and his cheap rookie contract — entering his first full season as the starter, the Ravens find themselves in a better salary-cap position than they’ve enjoyed in years. Young is the first to reap the benefits of that flexibility.

“We would love to keep as much young talent as we can in Baltimore,” DeCosta said last month. “That’s hard to do at times when you have a really, really good quarterback who’s making a lot of money and you have less cap room. It’s tougher for you to keep your roster intact. It is a lot easier to do when you don’t have those parameters.”

It remains to be seen which other young players the Ravens are hoping to extend, but left tackle Ronnie Stanley and outside linebacker Matthew Judon headline the list of logical candidates who aren’t scheduled to hit the market this offseason.

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humphrey

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How did Ravens cornerbacks stack up to rest of NFL in 2018?

Posted on 15 February 2019 by Luke Jones

The Ravens returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2014, but where did their players stack up across the NFL in 2018?

Whether it’s discussing the Pro Bowl or determining postseason awards, media and fans spend much time debating where players rank at each position, but few watch every player on every team extensively enough to form any type of an authoritative opinion.

Truthfully, how many times did you watch the offensive line of the Detroit Lions this season? What about the Oakland Raiders linebackers or the San Francisco 49ers cornerbacks?

That’s why I appreciate the grading efforts of Pro Football Focus while acknowledging these rankings shouldn’t be viewed as infallible or the gospel of evaluation. I can respect the exhaustive effort to grade players across the league when most of us watch only one team or one division on any kind of a consistent basis.

Below is a look at where Ravens cornerbacks ranked at their positions followed by the positional outlook going into 2019:

Offensive linemen
Linebackers
Tight ends
Defensive linemen
Running backs

Brandon Carr
2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 876
PFF ranking: 35th among cornerbacks
Skinny: The 32-year-old played and started in every game for the 11th straight year and was one of the most reliable performers on a top-ranked defense, finishing with 45 tackles and two interceptions. He also filled in effectively in the slot, making him more valuable at a $7 million salary cap figure for 2019.

Marlon Humphrey
2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 718
PFF ranking: 11th among cornerbacks
Skinny: Humphrey emerged as one of Baltimore’s best players in his second season and appears on the cusp of becoming a Pro Bowl cornerback. Per PFF, his 52.5-percent catch rate allowed was the seventh best in the league while his 22.5-percent forced incompletion rate ranked third best.

Jimmy Smith
2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 611
PFF ranking: 81st among cornerbacks
Skinny: Returning from a torn Achilles tendon and a four-game suspension to begin 2018, Smith struggled for much of the season before playing better down the stretch. A $15.85 million cap figure and $9.5 million salary for 2019 make it very possible the veteran has played his final game for Baltimore.

Tavon Young
2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 602
PFF ranking: 75th among cornerbacks
Skinny: A sports hernia hindered him late in the year, but the slot corner played better than his PFF grade indicates, especially after missing the 2017 season with a knee injury. Young is entering the final year of his rookie contract and plays bigger and tougher than his 5-foot-9, 185-pound frame suggests.

Anthony Averett
2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 71
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: The fourth-round rookie from Alabama missed five games with a hamstring injury, but he showed promise when he filled in for an injured Humphrey against Kansas City in Week 14. Optimism about his talent and development could make it easier to move on from Smith this offseason.

Maurice Canady
2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 10
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: After emerging as a solid slot cornerback in the second half of 2017, Canady sustained a hamstring injury in the season opener and missed nine games. He returned in late November to contribute on special teams, but injuries have prevented him from consistently staying on the field.

Cyrus Jones
2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 5
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: The former Gilman standout is unlikely to fit into Baltimore’s defensive plans, but he offered a major lift as a punt returner, averaging 14.4 yards per attempt and returning one for a touchdown in Week 12. The ball security that doomed him in New England wasn’t a big issue this season.

2019 positional outlook

After enduring depth problems at cornerback for a few years, the Ravens have done a commendable job assembling a strong collection over the last couple offseasons, leaving them in solid position moving forward. Deciding what to do with Smith and his untenable cap number is the first item of business, but the veteran corner still has strong support within the organization, leaving open the possibility of working out a pay cut with incentives or even a modest short-term extension to lower his 2019 cap number. Some have speculated about Carr’s future in the same light, but his 2018 performance, superior durability, and cheaper cap number make him the better investment for the upcoming season. The Ravens have taken a cornerback with no lower than a fourth-round pick in four consecutive drafts, a streak I expect to continue if Smith is indeed released or traded in the coming weeks.

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jimmysmith

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Examining Ravens’ top 11 salary cap numbers for 2019

Posted on 05 February 2019 by Luke Jones

The Ravens face their most intriguing offseason in years after making the playoffs for the first time since 2014 and transitioning to a new general manager and starting quarterback for 2019.

It’s no secret the draft is the lifeblood of any organization wanting to find — and maintain — prosperity, but teams need to receive appropriate production from their highest-paid veterans to maintain a balanced roster capable of competing for a Super Bowl championship. As of right now, the Ravens will devote $121.547 million in 2019 salary cap space to the 11 players possessing the highest cap numbers. The 2019 salary cap hasn’t yet been set, but it’s projected to rise from $177.2 million in 2018 to at least $188 million.

Below is a look at those 11 players:

1. QB Joe Flacco
2019 Week 1 age: 34
2019 cap number: $26.5 million
Synopsis: Flacco is the reason why I expanded from the normal 10 to the top 11 figures as Baltimore has already made clear its plans to move on from the veteran. Whether Eric DeCosta will be able to find a trade partner remains to be seen, but Flacco’s exit will create $10.5 million in cap savings while leaving $16 million in dead money on this year’s cap. My hope is the organization prioritizes building an offense around Lamar Jackson after using most of its meaningful draft capital and available cap dollars on the defense since Super Bowl XLVII. Flacco’s contract was a convenient excuse to overlook the entire truth.

2. CB Jimmy Smith
2019 Week 1 age: 31
2019 cap number: $15.85 million
Synopsis: Had the Ravens not restructured his deal in 2016 and 2017 to create cap space — and inflate his 2019 cap number in the process — I’d be more in favor of letting Smith play out the final year of his contract after he did perform better down the stretch last season. However, I just don’t see how this number is tenable for someone who’s played all 16 games in a season just twice in his career. The Ravens have done a good job building depth at cornerback, so it should be time to tap into that unless Smith agrees to a pay cut. Releasing him or working out a trade would save $9.5 million in cap space.

3. DT Brandon Williams
2019 Week 1 age: 30
2019 cap number: $14.17 million
Synopsis: Williams remains one of the better run-stopping nose tackles in the NFL, but his limitations as a pass rusher and the presence of Michael Pierce — regarded by some as a better player — haven’t quieted critics of the five-year, $52.5 million contract signed in 2017. A couple contract restructures have inflated Williams’ cap figures to over $14 million for each of the next three years, but the dead money involved makes it prohibitive to consider doing anything with his deal until next year at the earliest. He played in 50 percent of the defensive snaps in 2018, his lowest share in a season in which he’s played in all games.

4. S Tony Jefferson
2019 Week 1 age: 27
2019 cap number: $12.657 million
Synopsis: The strong safety was better in 2018 than he was in his first season with Baltimore, but this is another example where it’s more than fair to question whether the Ravens are getting enough value for what they’re paying with Jefferson’s contract currently ranking ninth among NFL safeties in average annual value, according to OverTheCap.com. Two restructures and the uncertain future of several defensive veterans more than likely keep Jefferson in the plans for 2019, but seeing him have the fourth-highest cap number on the team doesn’t add up compared to the kind of player he’s been.

5. G Marshal Yanda
2019 Week 1 age: 34
2019 cap number: $10.125 million
Synopsis: Even with his advancing age, Yanda is the first player on the list who remains a relative bargain considering he just made his seventh Pro Bowl in the last eight years — he missed nearly the entire 2017 season with an ankle injury — and his contract currently ranks 13th in average annual value earned among right guards. Any questions about his future should only be based on how much longer he wants to continue playing. Frankly, the Ravens should be exploring his interest in a reasonable extension if he wants to strengthen his case for possible induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame one day.

6. WR Michael Crabtree
2019 Week 1 age: 31
2019 cap number: $9.333 million
Synopsis: Coming off a second straight year in which he barely cracked 600 receiving yards, Crabtree would appear to be a strong candidate to become a cap casualty, but this year’s free-agent market for receivers is lukewarm and the organization’s history of drafting at the position ranges from poor to not even trying. That makes you wonder if the Ravens could keep Crabtree around for the sake of continuity, but his 16.9-percent drop rate is difficult to overlook. The veteran might be able to help the position group’s floor, but there isn’t much upside there anymore. Cutting him creates $4.667 million in space.

7. S Eric Weddle
2019 Week 1 age: 34
2019 cap number: $9.25 million
Synopsis: Trying to assess Weddle’s value is difficult as his mental prowess was credited by players and coaches as the reason why the defense was so deceptive. However, he finished his 12th season without an interception — he had a combined 10 in the previous two years — and a career-low three pass breakups. The Ravens could use more range at free safety, but there’s no guarantee they’ll find it immediately and Weddle’s leadership would be hard to replace. A pay cut with incentives would be ideal, but he’s already backed down from his initial vow not to play elsewhere. Releasing him saves $7.5 million in space.

8. CB Brandon Carr
2019 Week 1 age: 33
2019 cap number: $7 million
Synopsis: Carr continued his remarkable streak of never missing a game over his 11-year career and was second on the team in defensive snaps, providing very solid play on the outside and effectively filling in at the slot corner position when required. Despite Carr’s age, I’d much prefer his reasonable $6 million payout for 2019 compared to the $9.5 million base salary the Ravens are scheduled to give the oft-injured Smith. His leadership on defense could also become more critical depending on what happens with the likes of Weddle and free agents Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley.

9. OT Ronnie Stanley
2019 Week 1 age: 25
2019 cap number: $6.517 million
Synopsis: The Ravens will need to decide this spring whether to exercise their fifth-year option on Stanley, but that decision should be a no-brainer. Stanley hasn’t blossomed into the Pro Bowl left tackle Baltimore hoped he would become when selecting him sixth overall in the 2016 draft, but he’s been a steady contributor playing through a series of nagging ailments over his first three seasons.

10. K Justin Tucker
2019 Week 1 age: 29
2019 cap number: $5.145 million
Synopsis: Tucker is still regarded by many as the best kicker in the NFL as he enters the final year of his current contract, making him a logical candidate for an extension that could lower his 2019 cap figure a bit and keep him in Baltimore for several more years.

11. WR Willie Snead
2019 Week 1 age: 26
2019 cap number: $5 million
Synopsis: The slot receiver was one of Jackson’s favorite targets down the stretch and is the only sure thing in Baltimore’s group of wide receivers entering the offseason, making his compensation reasonable.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts from Harbaugh press conference

Posted on 25 January 2019 by Luke Jones

With John Harbaugh meeting with the media on Friday after signing his new four-year contract, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Harbaugh confirmed his role hasn’t changed in terms of roster input, noting how the organization’s brass works together and has never operated with a silo mentality. The thought of Steve Bisciotti suddenly moving the goalposts as Eric DeCosta finally gets his chance as general manager never made much sense.

2. Lamar Jackson plans to throw with his receivers, but Harbaugh avoided specifics when asked if Jackson planned to work with a quarterback guru or coach before the offseason program. He does expect Jackson to work hard and “come back a better quarterback, skill-wise, than he was when he left.”

3. The possibility remains of adding an outside assistant to specialize in the passing game, but Harbaugh made clear not to shortchange Greg Roman’s knowledge in that area. One difference with his time as San Francisco’s coordinator, however, was the presence of Jim Harbaugh, who spent 15 years as an NFL quarterback.

4. Asked which position groups he’d like to improve, Harbaugh said what the Ravens “don’t want to do is take any steps back” and have to play catch-up. With tough roster decisions on the defensive side, however, they may need to give a little there to grow this offense meaningfully.

5. Any discussion about Marshal Yanda’s future should only relate to the possibility of him retiring. His $7 million salary and $10.125 million cap figure for 2019 remain more than reasonable for someone who’s still one of the best guards in football going into his 13th season.

6. Harbaugh didn’t want to entertain the possibility of C.J. Mosley departing while noting “there are limitations with the money.” Both sides are interested in a long-term deal, but at what cost? Deals for Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner are four years old, so Mosley will — and should — be aiming higher.

7. It’s only logical that Baltimore would want a backup quarterback with a similar skill set to Jackson with Harbaugh calling Robert Griffin III “a great option” and also alluding to the media speculation about Tyrod Taylor, whose current contract voids a few days after the Super Bowl.

8. Harbaugh said he expects Eric Weddle to return, but the safety backpedaling this week from his previous comments about not playing for any other team but the Ravens in 2019 leads you to believe his $6.5 million salary and $9.25 million cap figure are possible sticking points for DeCosta.

9. I can’t imagine Za’Darius Smith was thrilled about his sports hernia surgery coming to light, but that shouldn’t impact his free-agent market anyway. Tavon Young (sports hernia) and Tony Jefferson (ankle) also had minor procedures. Alex Lewis undergoing another shoulder surgery isn’t encouraging, however.

10. Jimmy Smith wasn’t mentioned during Friday’s press conference, but Harbaugh has long been a strong advocate for the veteran cornerback. Even so, he’ll be 31 in July and is scheduled to make $9.5 million with a $15.85 million cap figure. That’s not tenable with the many other areas to address.

11. The playoff loss wasn’t a big topic of conversation after the long delay with Harbaugh’s season-ending press conference, but the coach reiterated the Ravens were “outplayed” and “outcoached” before vowing next year’s offense will be “very diverse” and built “from the ground up.” It’ll definitely be interesting.

12. Asked about Joe Flacco’s value, Harbaugh said his former quarterback just needs some weapons and pass protection to be “one of the best quarterbacks in the league.” Harbaugh was being complimentary and hasn’t been the general manager, of course, but the irony of those words couldn’t have been thicker.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 26-24 win over Cleveland

Posted on 01 January 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens clinching their first AFC North championship since 2012 with a 26-24 win over Cleveland, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The running game produced a season-high 296 yards and finished 2018 with the second-most rushing yards (2,441) in franchise history behind the 2003 team and ahead of the 2008 Ravens. What do those three playoff squads have in common? A rookie quarterback started a large portion of their games.

2. From going for a fourth-and-1 on the 48 on the first drive to using Cover 0 on the final four defensive plays, Baltimore was aggressive with the season on the line. Wink Martindale’s mindset was quite the contrast from rushing four and playing zone on fourth-and-12 last New Year’s Eve.

3. C.J. Mosley hasn’t had his best season and may not be worth the money required to re-sign him, but he made the game-sealing interception and was credited with four hurries by Pro Football Focus. I’ll maintain he’s underappreciated by much of a fan base using Ray Lewis as its standard.

4. Sam Koch deserves much credit for his 51-yard punt that put the Browns on their own 26 for their final drive. After a 37-yard return earlier, Antonio Callaway had nowhere to go near the sideline. A lesser punt very likely would have given Cleveland a potential game-winning field goal try.

5. The Ravens were an inch or two away from a 27-7 lead before Lamar Jackson’s fumble at the goal line. Not only were they fortunate a whistle prevented a Cleveland touchdown the other way, but the Browns failed to take advantage of further sloppy play from Baltimore before halftime.

6. Baker Mayfield made mistakes, but I couldn’t help but feel the Browns wasted plays at times trying to run and throw to the flats when they were having so much success pushing it down the field. The 7.6 yards per play allowed was easily a season worst for the Ravens.

7. Even in victory, it was concerning to see the offense unable to sustain a late drive to protect a one-score lead for the second straight contest. Marty Mornhinweg’s play-calling inside the red zone and on that fourth-quarter drive was questionable.

8. It’s been an up-and-down season for Jimmy Smith, but he came up with the first two-interception game by a Baltimore player since 2013. Per PFF, he allowed just one catch for one yard on seven targets into his coverage. Especially with Marlon Humphrey struggling mightily, that was a critical performance.

9. The short-term ramifications of Sunday’s game dominated the attention, but I’ll gladly sign up for many more Jackson-Mayfield meetings in the years to come. Terrell Suggs’ praise for both rookies said it all. Ben Roethlisberger remains the AFC North quarterback king for now, but a shift is already underway.

10. John Brown registered games of 116 receiving yards and a touchdown against Pittsburgh in Week 4 and 134 yards and a touchdown against New Orleans. Since Jackson became the starter, Brown has a total of eight catches for 114 yards and a touchdown. That’s rough playing on a one-year deal.

11. Sunday’s playoff contest will mark exactly six years since Ray Lewis and Ed Reed played their final home game as Ravens. It’s fitting Jackson, the most exciting player to arrive in Baltimore since Super Bowl XLVII, will start his first playoff game on that anniversary. What fun it should be.

12. Opinions differed on the black jerseys being paired with the purple pants for the first time, but I liked the unique look and hope to see it again, especially for a prime-time game. That was the 10th different uniform combination used by Baltimore this year. Oregon who?

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Ravens secondary continues to be banged up entering Week 15

Posted on 10 December 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — With another pass-heavy opponent on the schedule for Week 15, the Ravens continue to deal with health concerns in the secondary.

Not only did safety Tony Jefferson miss his second straight game with an ankle injury, but cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Tavon Young sat out extended stretches of Sunday’s 27-24 overtime loss at Kansas City. Humphrey and Young both missed practice time with groin injuries this past week and were limited to just 44 and 24 snaps, respectively, of Baltimore’s 86 total in Week 14.

Humphrey’s status is of particular concern as the Ravens now prepare to face a Tampa Bay offense ranking first in the NFL in passing yards per game (331.4) and third in yards per passing attempt (8.7). Baltimore is 0-3 in games in which the 2017 first-round pick has missed extensive time or sat out completely this season.

“It’s annoying. It takes a while for it to go away completely,” said head coach John Harbaugh of Humphrey’s injury. “Sometimes you can re-tweak it a little bit too. It’s probably something he’s going to be feeling for a while. It’s just the way groins are.”

With Humphrey and Young not taking their normal share of snaps against the Chiefs, Jimmy Smith played a season-high 84 snaps and Brandon Carr saw 68, his highest single-game total since Week 7.

Since sitting out the Week 12 win over Oakland, Young has played a total of 42 snaps over the last two games with Carr seeing more opportunities in the slot. Clearly not 100 percent against the Chiefs’ explosive offense, Humphrey played only a few snaps in the second half on Sunday as rookie fourth-round cornerback Anthony Averett saw 39 snaps, which more than doubled his season total.

Despite missing five games with a hamstring injury early in the season, Averett has impressed with his solid play in limited opportunities, helping give Baltimore its deepest secondary in recent years. He finished with two tackles against the Chiefs.

“Every round he’s gone out there, he’s done a good job,” Harbaugh said. “He only gets better. It just makes our corner situation even better than it was before. I was really pleased with how he played. It helped Marlon too as far as the long-term health for him.”

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Ravens-Chiefs: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 08 December 2018 by Luke Jones

The irresistible force meets the immovable object — or something like that.

The Ravens continue to fight the good fight in today’s offense-driven NFL and will test out their top-ranked defense in Kansas City. The 10-2 Chiefs own the league’s No. 1 scoring offense and rank fourth or better in total offense, passing offense, third-down offense, fourth-down offense, and red-zone offense.

After passing an important road test against Atlanta in impressive fashion last week, Baltimore will now see how its reliance on a revamped running game and stingy defense — a formula considered outdated by some — fares against the best team in the AFC. Sunday represents an opportunity for the Ravens to show they can be as dangerous as anyone in January.

It’s time to go on the record as these AFC teams meet for the eighth time in the all-time regular-season series. Kansas City holds a 4-3 advantage, but the Ravens have won both regular-season games at Arrowhead Stadium as well as a 2010 wild-card playoff game on the road. The Chiefs won the most recent meeting between these teams in 2015, a 34-14 final in Baltimore.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. The Ravens defense will intercept its first pass since early October, but pressure in the pocket will be rare. Yes, it’s been more than two months since Tavon Young intercepted a Baker Mayfield pass in the first quarter of the Week 5 loss in Cleveland. However, Patrick Mahomes is facing a disguise-heavy Baltimore defense for the first time in his career and has thrown 10 interceptions, proving he can occasionally be erratic despite his outstanding body of work. The problem will be getting to the young quarterback against an offensive line that’s surrendered only 20 sacks this season.

2. Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce will catch two touchdowns. Questions about Marlon Humphrey’s health complicate this topic as I believe a full-strength Ravens secondary would be wise to use Jimmy Smith or Humphrey to cover Kelce since he lines up plenty as a slot receiver. Baltimore has given up just 31 pass plays of 20 or more yards and two passes of 40 or more yards all season, so Wink Martindale will do everything he can to prevent the speedy Tyreek Hill from wrecking the game. That will leave the Ravens vulnerable underneath, however, with Kelce doing much of the damage.

3. Mark Andrews will continue to show chemistry with Lamar Jackson by catching a touchdown. The rookie tight end’s five catches for 140 yards over the last three games are nothing special at first glance, but that production has come on five targets, meaning Marty Mornhinweg and Jackson would be wise to utilize this connection more frequently. The Chiefs are vulnerable over the middle and have struggled to cover tight ends even more than Baltimore has this season, which should allow the Ravens to find some success through the air in that portion of the field.

4. Jackson will crack 190 passing yards for the first time in his career with underwhelming results. The Ravens will run the ball effectively against another bad rush defense, but a strong ground game isn’t as valuable as a prolific passing attack, making it inevitable that Jackson will need to make plays with his arm, something he was rarely able to do in Atlanta. The Chiefs defense carries one of the NFL’s worst overall statistical profiles, but eight of its 11 interceptions and 21 of its 39 sacks have come in just five home games, which is bad news if Baltimore falls behind.

5. Red-zone efficiency will be the difference as the Chiefs pull away in a 31-16 final. A convincing road win over the Falcons offers hope that the revamped Ravens might be able to upset Kansas City, but Atlanta has been going nowhere fast for much of the season while the Chiefs are on the fast track to the No. 1 seed. Much has been made about a running game that’s rushed for over 700 yards the last three weeks, but the Ravens have netted just five offensive touchdowns in 17 drives reaching the opponent’s 30-yard line. Running the ball and controlling the clock to try to limit scoring opportunities for Mahomes and the Chiefs offense is a sound strategy, but that only works when you’re finishing those long drives with touchdowns, something the Ravens haven’t done consistently enough to like their chances in this one. I’ll take the No. 1 offense over the No. 1 defense every time in today’s NFL, but the Ravens will still battle for large stretches of this one.

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Ravens defense facing biggest challenge yet in Kansas City

Posted on 06 December 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith compared Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes to a young Brett Favre.

Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said the second-year quarterback reminds him of Joe Montana and called Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill “the fastest human being I’ve ever seen wear a helmet.” The coach also noted how you don’t stop Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce as much as you merely try to limit his big plays.

You’d say the top-ranked Ravens defense is buttering up its opponent until you dive into the numbers for an offense averaging 37.0 points and 437.2 yards per game. With a quarter of the regular season to go, Mahomes has already thrown 41 touchdowns while Hill and Kelce have each eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards with a combined 20 touchdown catches.

Even after holding Atlanta to just nine offensive points in last week’s victory, the Ravens understand what awaits at Arrowhead Stadium. It’s a road challenge unlike any they’ve encountered this season.

“We know we have to go out and play great to have a chance to win this game, let alone stop them,” safety Eric Weddle said. “In reality, holding this team to what we did [against the Falcons last week] is probably not going to happen. But we can make things tough on them. We can create turnovers. We can hold them in the red zone.”

Those prospects don’t sound as encouraging when you consider Baltimore is tied for 30th in the NFL with just nine takeaways and hasn’t intercepted a pass since Week 5. The Ravens have surrendered a league-best 17.8 points per game, but their red-zone defense is an underwhelming 25th with opponents maximizing their opportunities inside the 20, rare as they might be.

Those red-zone issues largely stem from problems covering tight ends, which is even more concerning against a unique talent like Kelce. Despite ranking second in passing yards allowed per game, the Ravens have allowed a touchdown reception to a tight end in five of the last six games and rank 25th in the NFL against tight ends in Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average metric.

Kelce has caught 79 passes for 1,082 yards and nine touchdowns this season and lines up all over the field, making him a matchup nightmare for even the best defenses. According to ESPN, he ranks second in the league in receiving yards from the slot and first in yards after the catch from the slot, meaning Kelce should be treated more like a receiver than a tight end typically covered by a linebacker or safety.

Might the Ravens be better served using one of their big cornerbacks like Smith or Marlon Humphrey to travel with Kelce when he lines up away from the tackle box?

“It’s interesting. I didn’t think about that,” said Smith as he smiled when presented with the possibility. “I don’t know, maybe our coaches might think of something like that. That would be something for them to look at.”

The Ravens will need to vary their fronts and coverages — one of their biggest strengths — to try to keep the Chiefs guessing. As Martindale said, “If they know what you’re in, they will slaughter you.”

Home cooking for Chiefs defense?

Many have cited the Ravens’ need to continue to run the ball effectively to control the clock and limit Kansas City’s possessions, but assumptions that they’ll be able to score plenty might be premature.

Kansas City ranks 31st in total defense, 22nd in rush defense, 32nd in pass defense, and 27th in points allowed per game, but the splits suggest a more formidable defense playing at home. The Ravens should take comfort in the Chiefs allowing an ugly 5.3 yards per carry at home, but they’ve surrendered just 17.6 points per game at Arrowhead Stadium, which is less than the 18.7 points per game allowed by Baltimore on the road this year.

The Chiefs have registered eight of their 11 interceptions and 21 of their 39 sacks in their five home games, a profile that doesn’t bode well for rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson and a passing game that’s been inconsistent at best over these last three weeks. The Ravens have rushed for over 200 yards in each of their last three games, but they’ve managed just five offensive touchdowns and have gone 5-for-10 inside the red zone over that stretch.

They’ll need to do better than that to have a good chance on Sunday, and the Kansas City defense may not be as cooperative as many are assuming at first glance.

Suggs on L.T.’s heels

Following the win in Atlanta, Martindale received a call from his son informing him 16th-year linebacker Terrell Suggs was now only one sack away from passing Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor on the all-time list.

“I won’t tell you what I told my son because I’m going to keep it clean up here, but I said, ‘Wow!’” Martindale said. “You don’t think about that because we see ‘Sizz’ all the time, every day.”

Suggs recorded the 132nd sack of his career against the Falcons in Week 13, just a half shy of the New York Giants legend’s total. It’s fair noting Taylor accumulated his 132 1/2 in 13 seasons, but Suggs moving into 13th place on the all-time list with his next quarterback takedown will only strengthen his case for Canton one day.

The 36-year-old needs 3 1/2 sacks in the final four games to record the eighth double-digit sack campaign of his career.

Injury report

Humphrey missed his second straight practice with a groin injury, heightening concerns about his availability for Sunday’s game against the Chiefs. Safety Tony Jefferson (ankle) and left guard Alex Lewis (shoulder) also missed Thursday’s session.

Quarterback Joe Flacco (right hip) was a limited participant once again and is moving around better in practices than he did last week, but it remains unclear whether he’ll be cleared to be active for Week 14. Offensive lineman James Hurst (back) continues to be limited after both he and head coach John Harbaugh expressed hope earlier this week for his potential return after a six-game absence.

Below is Thursday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: WR John Brown (non-injury), CB Marlon Humphrey (groin), S Tony Jefferson (ankle), G Alex Lewis (shoulder)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: QB Joe Flacco (right hip), OT James Hurst (back), DB Anthony Levine (ankle), CB Tavon Young (groin)
FULL PARTICIPATION: WR Michael Crabtree (non-injury), LB Tim Williams (ankle), S Eric Weddle (non-injury), G Marshal Yanda (non-injury)

KANSAS CITY
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: TE Demetrius Harris (illness/knee)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: S Eric Berry (heel), WR Sammy Watkins (foot)
FULL PARTICIPATION: LB Anthony Hitchens (quadriceps/rib)

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Ravens-Falcons: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 01 December 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens holding a 6-5 record going into December is very familiar territory.

For the third straight year, John Harbaugh’s team is a game above .500 and occupying a playoff spot going into the final month of the season. But we know how that turned out the last two seasons, and the Ravens now begin a daunting stretch of three road games over the next four weeks.

Atlanta has dropped to 4-7 after a three-game losing streak, but Baltimore’s only December road victory over the last three seasons came against winless Cleveland last year. In other words, the Ravens have no reason to feel overconfident against a team circling the drain in the NFC playoff race.

It’s time to go on the record as these teams meet for just the sixth time in the all-time regular-season series. The Ravens hold a 3-2 advantage, but they were 1-2 at the Georgia Dome, the Falcons’ former home before Mercedes-Benz Stadium opened last year.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Gus Edwards will rush for over 100 yards for the third consecutive game. Alex Collins going to injured reserve reinforces what we already knew: Edwards is the No. 1 guy. Much was made about the poor Cincinnati and Oakland defenses the last two weeks, but Edwards will now face a Falcons defense ranking 25th in rushing yards allowed and 30th in yards per carry allowed (5.1). Atlanta will sell out to limit Lamar Jackson’s rushing opportunities, which will allow Edwards to become the first Ravens running back since Justin Forsett in 2014 to eclipse the century mark in three consecutive contests.

2. Julio Jones will catch a touchdown despite being held under 100 yards for the first time since Week 5. It’ll be fascinating to see how the Ravens approach Jones and whether Marlon Humphrey or Jimmy Smith travels with him — likely with some safety help. You don’t stop a generational talent like Jones, who has registered at least six catches and 100 yards in six straight games, but the goal is preventing him from wrecking the game. The problem will be accounting for Calvin Ridley and Mohamed Sanu in the process. Jones will find the end zone for only the fourth time this season.

3. Two turnovers will overshadow an otherwise solid day for Jackson in his first road start. There is much to like about the rookie, but a road game provides new challenges for a young quarterback that shouldn’t be taken lightly. The Ravens will again lean heavily on the run, but a better opposing offense will force Jackson into more passing spots late. Protecting the football is even more critical on the road, but Jackson has tossed three interceptions and experienced a couple hiccups at the mesh point of zone-read handoffs. Similar miscues will be costly and offset some impressive moments.

4. The Baltimore defense will surrender a late touchdown pass to Falcons tight end Austin Hooper. An opposing tight end has caught a touchdown against the Ravens in four of the last five games, and Hooper is capable enough of causing some problems as the secondary tries to slow such a talented wide receiver trio. How Ravens safeties and linebackers handle Hooper and running back Tevin Coleman as a receiver out of the backfield will be a substantial key. Chuck Clark filling in for the injured Tony Jefferson doesn’t bring a major drop-off at safety, but Matt Ryan will find Hooper in a critical spot.

5. The recent history of December struggles will continue as the Ravens fall 27-20 to Atlanta. In case you were wondering, I’d still be picking the Falcons if a healthy Joe Flacco was under center this week. I don’t expect the environment to be too big for Jackson, but lost in the hype of a revamped running game is the fact that the Ravens scored four offensive touchdowns at home against two dreadful defenses, which isn’t particularly impressive. Perhaps the Falcons have quit after three straight losses, but their offense is too talented on paper to continue to underperform, especially with extra rest after a Thanksgiving night game. On the flip side, the Baltimore defense has a total of two takeaways and six sacks over its last five games and just doesn’t make enough dynamic plays despite its impressive statistical profile. The Ravens offense is an underwhelming 4-for-8 inside the red zone the last two weeks, and Baltimore ranks 22nd in red-zone defense entering Week 13. That area of the field will be the difference in a tight game.

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