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Ravens add ex-Patriot Richards after Bethel signs with New England

Posted on 24 October 2019 by Luke Jones

The Ravens and New England have indirectly swapped special-teams contributors.

After releasing veteran cornerback and three-time Pro Bowl special-teams player Justin Bethel in a decision driven solely by the NFL’s compensatory pick formula earlier this week, Baltimore signed veteran defensive back Jordan Richards on Thursday morning. Richards was released by the Patriots Tuesday to make roster room to sign Bethel.

A 2015 second-round pick out of Stanford, Richards had appeared in three games for New England this season, playing 60 snaps exclusively on special teams and making two tackles. The 26-year-old was originally drafted by the Patriots and has made 19 starts in 59 career games with New England and Atlanta. Richards signed a one-year deal with Oakland in April before being released at the end of the preseason, eventually re-signing with New England on Oct. 2.

General manager Eric DeCosta had released Bethel to keep the organization in position for a projected 2020 fourth-round compensatory pick. Tennessee’s release of former Baltimore defensive end Brent Urban last weekend had removed the pick from the Ravens’ compensatory ledger, leading to a difficult choice to cut Bethel despite him leading the team with five special-teams tackles.

The Richards signing still leaves the Ravens with one open spot on the 53-man roster after outside linebacker Pernell McPhee was placed on injured reserve with a torn triceps. Defensive line coach Joe Cullen mentioned practice-squad edge rusher Aaron Adeoye as an option, but Baltimore fans will continue to hope for a trade for an impact pass rusher between now and Tuesday’s deadline.

The Ravens also signed outside linebacker Demone Harris to their practice squad earlier this week. Harris was most recently with Tampa Bay and shared his whirlwind week on his official Twitter account.

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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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Twelve Ravens thoughts ahead of Thursday’s preseason opener

Posted on 06 August 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens preparing for Thursday’s preseason opener against Jacksonville, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Yes, it’s still just practice, but Lamar Jackson checked another box with two steady-to-strong showings against a talented Jacksonville defense. He isn’t suddenly a Marino-Vick hybrid, but he’s making good and on-time decisions with better accuracy. Within the reasonable range of expectations, the Ravens have to be pleased — and excited.

2. Jackson presents a preseason catch-22 John Harbaugh has rarely faced. The 22-year-old with eight career starts will surely benefit from game reps, but how much potential injury risk are you willing to take? I certainly expect him to play more than the 31 snaps Joe Flacco took all last preseason.

3. The timing of the Alex Lewis trade was a little surprising considering the current left guard picture, but his decision to handle his own shoulder rehab made it apparent the sides weren’t on the same page. It’s good news for Greg Senat and Patrick Mekari, two bubble linemen to watch.

4. Asked if the clock’s ticking on Tim Williams and Tyus Bowser, defensive line coach Joe Cullen said, “The clock has ticked, and it’s ready to explode.” Both flashed more this past week, but these preseason games are massive for them and the other outside linebackers not named Matthew Judon.

5. All eyes are on the pass rush, but setting the edge is another question mark with Terrell Suggs gone. Cullen said Pernell McPhee is the best in that department opposite Judon, but you really prefer him being more situational rusher than starter in the base defense. That’s worrisome.

6. You’ve probably noticed the lack of Marquise Brown observations this past week, but the rookie first-round pick just isn’t doing much beyond individual position work. He obviously won’t play Thursday, but you’d certainly expect the Ravens to increase his activity level after that.

7. Veterans always deserve the benefit of the doubt this time of year, but it’s been a pretty slow start to camp for Jimmy Smith, who gave up two long touchdowns to Jacksonville receivers Tuesday and was visibly frustrated. The good news is it’s early August and the 31-year-old is healthy.

8. Besides Brown and Miles Boykin, two young wide receivers I’m looking forward to watching in the preseason are 2018 fourth-round pick Jaleel Scott and rookie free agent Antoine Wesley. Both are tall and have consistently made plays this summer, leaving them in the conversation for a roster spot.

9. Coaches have mentioned Jaylon Ferguson still adjusting to the speed of the game, but you hope being able to let loose in preseason action will get him going. How much he does — or doesn’t do — on special teams may dictate how he’s handled on game days early in the regular season.

10. Patrick Ricard and Cyrus Jones are two bubble players with which I’ve been impressed. Ricard has delivered crushing blocks as a fullback and extra tight end and provides game-day versatility as a defensive lineman. Strictly a punt returner last year, Jones has played with an edge as a nickel corner.

11. How Kaare Vedvik kicks in preseason games will determine whether the Ravens are able to fetch anything in a trade. I can’t imagine more than a conditional seventh-rounder, but he’ll need to show more accuracy than he has this spring and summer. The leg strength is definitely there.

12. Thirty minutes into Monday’s practice, Jacksonville’s James Onwualu was carted off the field with a season-ending knee injury. In the first 11 camp practices, not a single Raven was carted off and only a few even left the field with a health concern. I’ll now wait for the jinx accusations.

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Waiting continues after “game wrecker” McCoy concludes visit with Ravens

Posted on 29 May 2019 by Luke Jones

After a “great” two-day visit with free-agent defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, the Ravens will now wait and see if one of the NFL’s best interior pass rushers of the last decade will join their revamped defense.

The six-time Pro Bowl selection left the team’s Owings Mills training facility without signing a contract Wednesday, but the Ravens remain in the running for his services along with Cleveland and Carolina. McCoy will reportedly next visit the Panthers after spending extensive time with both the Browns and Ravens over the last week.

The 31-year-old was released by Tampa Bay earlier this month after registering six or more sacks in each of the last six seasons. The Ravens are deep at nose tackle with Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce, but they lack interior pass rushers with the offseason departures of Za’Darius Smith and Brent Urban, making McCoy an intriguing option to lead the likes of Willie Henry, Pernell McPhee, and 5-technique defensive ends Chris Wormley, and Zach Sieler.

Regarded as a high-character individual around the league, McCoy would also join free safety Earl Thomas to help fill the veteran leadership void left with the exits of Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley, and Eric Weddle. His ability to disrupt the pocket is the primary drawing factor, of course.

“I think everybody out there has seen what he can do,” owner Steve Bisciotti said in a Wednesday conference call with season-ticket holders. “I think he’s a bit of a game wrecker. … He brings something to the table that we don’t have.”

The third overall pick of the 2010 draft out of Oklahoma, McCoy has collected 53 1/2 sacks in his nine seasons, but the Buccaneers weren’t willing to pay their longtime defensive star $13 million this fall, making him a free agent for the first time in his decorated career. According to Pro Football Focus, the 6-foot-4, 300-pound McCoy graded as the 28th-best interior defender among qualified NFL players and received the lowest pass-rushing grade of his career last season despite still registering six sacks and 21 quarterback hits.

The Ravens currently have $13.484 million in salary cap space, which could make it challenging to strike a deal if McCoy desires a one-year contract with a high base salary in hopes of reestablishing his value and hitting the open market next March. Baltimore still needs cap room to sign its remaining draft picks, pay practice-squad players during the regular season, and maintain enough financial flexibility to sign additional players in the event of injuries, meaning general manager Eric DeCosta would likely need to create some more room at some point if McCoy agrees to terms.

The Browns have over $32 million in cap space while the Panthers sport just over $8.5 million, according to the NFL Players Association. McCoy has reportedly received one-year offers as high as $11 million.

An appealing factor working in the Ravens’ favor is the way defensive coordinator Wink Martindale likes to rotate his defensive linemen, which could keep McCoy fresh and more productive over a full season. His 732 defensive snaps last season ranked 31st among NFL defensive linemen and were 210 more than any Baltimore defensive linemen played, reflecting how heavily the Buccaneers defense leaned on the veteran. McCoy also has a relationship with Ravens defensive line coach Joe Cullen after the two worked together in Tampa Bay in 2014 and 2015.

Expecting McCoy to regain his peak form might be unrealistic, but he’d give the Ravens their highest-profile all-around defensive tackle since Haloti Ngata, who coincidentally had his retirement press conference Wednesday. McCoy attended part of the session before leaving the team facility, but Ngata had the opportunity to make his own pitch to the free agent.

“He’d be an amazing, amazing, amazing player to have here,” said Ngata, who made five Pro Bowls and was a member of the Super Bowl XLVII championship team. “As you guys know, he’s done a lot of amazing things in Tampa. We talked, and I just wished him the best in wherever he decides to go.

“If it’s here, that’s even better.”

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Ravens hire former NFL head coach Frazier, shake up defensive staff

Posted on 15 January 2016 by Luke Jones

A week after saying he would be keeping his coaching staff intact despite a 5-11 season, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh made changes to his defensive group headlined by the hiring of former NFL head coach Leslie Frazier.

A source confirmed Friday night that the former head man of the Minnesota Vikings will coach the Baltimore secondary. The 56-year-old Frazier had served as the defensive coordinator of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers over the last two seasons and coached with Harbaugh for four years on Andy Reid’s staff in Philadelphia from 1999-2002.

The Ravens finished 10th in the NFL in pass defense this past season, but the secondary struggled mightily in the first half of the season as defensive backs were frequently out of position and played with poor technique. This will mark the fourth different secondary coach for the Ravens in four years.

Frazier also served as a defensive coach in Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Minnesota. Following the dismissal of Vikings head coach Brad Childress late in the 2010 season, Frazier was promoted from defensive coordinator to interim coach and was hired permanently, serving as the head coach from 2011-2013. He guided Minnesota to the playoffs in 2012, which marked the single-biggest turnaround in franchise history.

The Cleveland Browns had reportedly been interested in Frazier as their defensive coordinator before he agreed to join the Ravens.

Defensive backs coach Chris Hewitt will now assist Frazier in the secondary while cornerbacks coach Matt Weiss will now assist Don Martindale with coaching the linebackers. Linebackers coach Ted Monachino departed last week to become the new defensive coordinator in Indianapolis.

With longtime defensive line coach Clarence Brooks continuing to fight esophageal cancer and expected to undergo surgery this offseason, the Ravens will ease his workload as he will become a senior defensive assistant and former Tampa Bay defensive line coach Joe Cullen will join Baltimore under Brooks’ previous title.

Previously an assistant for Cleveland (2013), Jacksonville (2010-2012), and Detroit (2006-2008), Cullen had spent the last two seasons with the Buccaneers and was believed to be a candidate to become their defensive coordinator before new head coach Dirk Koetter hired Mike Smith on Friday.

While most position coaches work in relative anonymity, Cullen became infamous in 2006 for a pair of alcohol-related incidents, which included an arrest for driving under the influence and another for driving naked through a Wendy’s drive-through. He was fined $20,000 and suspended for one game by the NFL for detrimental conduct in addition to being sentenced by a judge to probation, community service, and required attendance at Alcoholic Anonymous meetings.

Cullen has apparently stayed out of trouble since then and has even used his own experiences to try to help troubled players.

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