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Ravens reportedly agree to deal with veteran inside linebacker Jake Ryan

Posted on 18 April 2020 by Luke Jones

The Ravens have added some veteran depth to a thin inside linebacker group with a reported one-year agreement for former Green Bay and Jacksonville inside linebacker Jake Ryan.

According to NFL Network, the deal is pending a physical, which is notable with Ryan, 28, having played in just two games over the last two years. The 2015 fourth-round pick from Michigan had appeared in 43 games and started 27 contests over his first three seasons with the Packers, collecting 213 tackles, one sack, a forced fumble, three pass breakups, and two fumble recoveries.

The 6-foot-2, 240-pound Ryan suffered a torn ACL in the summer of 2018, ending his season and bringing his time with the Packers to an end. He signed a two-year, $7.5 million with the Jaguars last year, but Ryan began the 2019 regular season on the non-football injury list and appeared in only two December games before a hamstring injury sent him to injured reserve. Jacksonville declined to pick up his 2020 option in February, making him a free agent.

Ryan’s addition isn’t expected to impact general manager Eric DeCosta’s plans for next week’s draft as the Ravens aim to add impact talent to a position that lost veterans Josh Bynes and Patrick Onwuasor in free agency. The inside linebacker group now consists of Ryan, L.J. Fort, Chris Board, and Otaro Alaka.

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Baltimore Ravens middle linebacker Josh Bynes is introduced onto the field prior to an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

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How did Ravens inside linebackers stack up to rest of NFL in 2019?

Posted on 24 February 2020 by Luke Jones

The Ravens recorded the best regular season in franchise history, but where did their individual players stack up across the NFL in 2019?

Whether it’s discussing the Pro Bowl — Baltimore had a record-tying 13 selections — 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 closely enough to form any real authoritative opinion.

Truthfully, how many times did you watch the Tampa Bay offensive line this season? What about the Atlanta Falcons linebackers or the Detroit Lions cornerbacks?

That’s why I respect the efforts of Pro Football Focus while acknowledging their grading is far from the gospel of evaluation. I don’t envy the exhaustive effort to evaluate players across the league when most of us watch one team or maybe one division on any kind of a regular basis.

We’ll look at each positional group on the roster in the coming days, but below is a look at where Ravens inside linebackers ranked across the NFL this past season followed by the positional outlook going into 2020:

Safeties
Running backs
Cornerbacks
Wide receivers
Defensive linemen
Tight ends

Patrick Onwuasor
2019 defensive snap count (including postseason): 503
PFF ranking: 73rd among off-ball linebackers
Skinny: Viewed by many as a priority to extend after a strong 2018 season, Onwuasor flopped in his move to “Mike” linebacker and suffered a Week 5 ankle injury that cost him two games. The 27-year-old remained a solid blitzer upon returning to the weak-side spot, but he surrendered a 118.6 passer rating in coverage and was closer to being an afterthought than an impact player in the second half of the season.

Josh Bynes
2019 defensive snap count (including postseason): 431
PFF ranking: sixth among off-ball linebackers
Skinny: The October signing of the Super Bowl XLVII champion slowed the heartbeat of a position group in total disarray after the opening month of the season. Though not an every-down player in Baltimore’s multiple defense, the 30-year-old Bynes saw more action than any other inside linebacker down the stretch and was quite solid in coverage, proving to be a crucial in-season addition.

L.J. Fort
2019 defensive snap count (including postseason): 270
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: After previously drawing offseason interest from the Ravens, Fort also arrived after Week 4 and was graded favorably by PFF in more situational playing time. A good special-teams player and a capable nickel linebacker, the 30-year-old signed a two-year, $5.5 million extension in November and is the only safe bet to be part of the inside linebacker picture in 2020 at this point.

Chris Board
2019 defensive snap count (including postseason): 64
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: The North Dakota State product created some buzz last summer and looked like he might be the next undrafted inside linebacker to earn a starting gig in Baltimore before late-summer injuries slowed his momentum. That preseason hype proved to be a greater indictment of former fourth-round pick Kenny Young, however, as Board played only a few defensive snaps after Week 4.

Otaro Alaka
2019 defensive snap count (including postseason): 0
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: A good preseason landed the rookie free agent from Texas A&M on the 53-man roster, but a hamstring injury eliminated any chance of him getting a look at inside linebacker as Alaka was placed on injured reserve in late September. He’s a name to watch this spring and summer, but the Ravens didn’t see enough of him as a rookie to assume he’s a viable rotation option at this point.

2020 positional outlook

Few would fault Eric DeCosta’s decision not to match the market-altering contract the New York Jets gave four-time Pro Bowl selection C.J. Mosley — especially after the ex-Raven missed all but two games with a groin injury in 2019 — but gambling on the youth and athleticism of Onwuasor, Young, and Board proved to be unwise, prompting an in-season reconstruction that worked surprisingly well. Still, there’s a reason why so many mock drafts have projected Baltimore to take Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray or LSU’s Patrick Queen with the 28th overall pick. Even with the increasing popularity of the dime and nickel packages in recent years, a three-down linebacker would help stabilize the front seven and leave the Ravens less vulnerable against the run, a deficiency that was exposed in the playoff loss to Derrick Henry and Tennessee. The Ravens don’t need to find the next Ray Lewis, but drafting an inside linebacker early, re-signing Bynes to platoon with Fort, and continuing to develop Alaka and Board as long-term depth options would put the Ravens in better shape at this position for 2020 and beyond.

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New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold, right, tries to make a pass while taking a hit from Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Michael Pierce (97) during the first half of an NFL football game, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

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Want or need? Assessing Ravens position groups entering offseason

Posted on 21 January 2020 by Luke Jones

Need is a relative term when assessing the Ravens roster after a franchise-best 14-2 regular season that set all kinds of franchise and NFL records.

The sting of their divisional-round loss to Tennessee will linger for a long time, but perspective is critical when sizing up a roster that included the best offense in the league and one of the top defenses by season’s end. That’s not to say improvements aren’t in order and change isn’t inevitable with 17 Baltimore players set to become unrestricted free agents, but the Ravens would easily remain a playoff-caliber team on paper after even a ho-hum offseason of free-agent departures and only pedestrian additions. Having an MVP quarterback, an innovative offense with no unrestricted free agents of real consequence, and a great secondary will go a long way in covering up any deficiencies elsewhere.

Yes, the early playoff exit was a bitter disappointment and a missed opportunity as the AFC’s No. 1 seed, but this isn’t a roster in need of major surgery as much as some fine-tuning after having a bad game at the wrong time. It’s an enviable place when you have close to $30 million in salary cap space and a fresh batch of draft picks in April. But as John Harbaugh often likes to recite the quote attributed to former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler, “Every day you either get better or you get worse; you never stay the same.”

Below is a look at what positions the Ravens absolutely need to address or simply would like to upgrade between now and the start of the 2020 season:

Edge defender/outside linebacker — NEED

Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale made it work after the departures of Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith, but this position group remains a major concern with 2019 Pro Bowl selection Matthew Judon and depth pieces Pernell McPhee and Jihad Ward set to become free agents. Tyus Bowser took a step forward with five sacks in his third season and 2019 third-round pick Jaylon Ferguson showed growth as the year progressed, but viewing either as a definite 2020 starter would be too optimistic based on the body of work. Even if Baltimore gives Judon a blank check or the franchise tag to keep him, finding an additional impact outside linebacker is a clear objective. The Ravens blitzed more than any team in the NFL to create pressure in 2019, but more impactful four-man rushes would make this defense even more dangerous. Setting the edge against the run was also an inconsistency that was often masked by Baltimore holding so many big leads that forced opponents to abandon the ground game.

Wide receiver — WANT

I have been a broken record about Baltimore’s deficiency at wide receiver for years and noted during the Tennessee loss that another impact option would be really useful, but classifying wide receiver as a want goes back to keeping the proper perspective. You wouldn’t expect offensive coordinator Greg Roman to move away from featuring the tight ends with the success Lamar Jackson has passing to that trio between the numbers, and rookie first-round wide receiver Marquise Brown showed unique ability despite being hampered by foot and ankle issues. When you add the presence of veteran Willie Snead and the potential of 2019 third-round pick Miles Boykin, the requisite floor and upside are there — even if barely — to think the Ravens can win a Super Bowl. Still, adding a dynamic wide receiver to make plays when Baltimore trails and to have a presence outside the numbers would take Jackson and the NFL’s leading scoring offense to another level, a frightening thought for opponents.

Interior offensive line — WANT*

The asterisk is connected to eight-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda and his decision whether to return for a 14th season. If Yanda comes back, the Ravens remain in good short-term shape on the offensive line as undrafted rookie Patrick Mekari filled in respectably at center for Matt Skura, whose major knee injury makes him a question mark until at least training camp. However, Yanda’s retirement would make this a significant need with 2019 fourth-round guard Ben Powers not exactly making an impact as a rookie and the Ravens losing a Hall of Fame talent in a position group not sporting a ton of experience. You feel more confident about Skura or Mekari at center, Bradley Bozeman at left guard, and Orlando Brown Jr. at right tackle because of Yanda’s presence and elite play. Pro Bowl left tackle Ronnie Stanley may help fill the leadership void, but you just don’t replace a special player like Yanda.

Inside linebacker — NEED

This year marked only the seventh time in 24 seasons in which the Ravens didn’t receive a Pro Bowl invitation at this position, speaking to the impossible standard created by Ray Lewis and the commendable run from C.J. Mosley before his free-agent departure last March. General manager Eric DeCosta deserves credit for the in-season additions of Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort to stabilize the position, but that came after the organization underestimated the problems Patrick Onwuasor, Kenny Young, and Chris Board would have stepping into larger roles. Martindale effectively mixed and matched Bynes, Fort, and Onwuasor while often dropping safety Chuck Clark into the box in sub packages, but finding a complete three-down linebacker would decrease the likelihood of the defense getting caught with a second level that’s either too light against the run or too slow in coverage. Re-signing Bynes would certainly be on the table, but a younger every-down option would be preferable. Baltimore doesn’t need an All-Pro inside linebacker to have a great defense, but substituting so frequently was less than ideal.

Interior defensive line — NEED

Giving a big contract to Michael Pierce wouldn’t appear to be in the plans with Brandon Williams still having two years remaining on his deal and Pierce not making a strong argument for the Ravens to commit to him after weight concerns in the offseason and a solid but unspectacular 2019 campaign. Baltimore’s pursuit of six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy last spring highlighted a desire to find an interior pass rusher, but Chris Wormley and 2019 fifth-round pick Daylon Mack are the only other defensive linemen under contract for the 2020 campaign beyond the soon-to-be 31-year-old Williams. In other words, the Ravens have much work to do here to fortify their depth against the run while trying to find an inside option or two who can also get after the quarterback.

Cornerback — WANT

No one would classify cornerback as a need with 2019 Pro Bowl selections Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey both under contract and slot cornerback Tavon Young expected to be ready for the offseason program after a season-ending neck injury suffered in August. However, you can never have enough depth at this critical spot with Jimmy Smith set to become an unrestricted free agent and Brandon Carr carrying a $6 million price tag for his 2020 option and transitioning to more of a safety role this past season. A modest short-term extension could make sense for Smith, but committing substantial money to someone who will be 32 in July and has played in more than 12 games in a season only twice in nine years doesn’t sound appealing. Anthony Averett and Iman Marshall bring some upside as recent fourth-round selections, but relying on either as the first wave of depth would be risky.

Special teams — WANT

The Ravens signing unrestricted free-agent cornerback Justin Bethel in the first week of free agency last March reinforced their commitment to this phase of the game that goes beyond specialists Justin Tucker, Sam Koch, and Morgan Cox. With that in mind, Anthony Levine, Chris Moore, Brynden Trawick, Jordan Richards, and De’Anthony Thomas will all be unrestricted free agents after playing at least 120 special-teams snaps apiece for Baltimore this season. Whether re-signing a few members of that group or using resources to sign a veteran or two on the open market, the Ravens seem likely to address special teams after being underwhelming in that department — at least by their lofty standards — down the stretch.

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Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) scrambles against the Cleveland Browns during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019, in Cleveland. The Ravens won 31-15. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 16 win at Cleveland

Posted on 23 December 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens clinching the AFC’s top seed and home-field advantage in the playoffs for the first time in team history in a 31-15 win over Cleveland, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The turning point of Sunday’s victory was the 14-0 run over the final 78 seconds of the first half, but the defense forcing a three-and-out between those two touchdown drives without cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Jimmy Smith on the field was enormous.

2. I saw a little Ben Roethlisberger in Lamar Jackson’s second touchdown pass in which he evaded pressure in the pocket and then muscled an end-zone throw to Mark Andrews. His speed and agility are givens, but Jackson doesn’t get enough credit for his strength.

3. Jackson recorded his fifth 100-yard rushing game of the season — equaling the total produced by all Ravens players from 2015-17 — and now owns the ninth 1,200-yard rushing season in franchise history. Not bad for a quarterback.

4. The Baltimore run defense has been fairly scrutinized despite a shiny ranking in yards per game allowed, but it answered the bell holding Nick Chubb to 45 yards after he embarrassed the Ravens in Week 4. The dime package sometimes springs leaks against the run, but not this week.

5. The decline of the ground game was a major part of the post-Super Bowl XLVII era with the Ravens producing only one 1,000-yard rusher — Justin Forsett in 2014 — over six seasons. To now have only the seventh 1,000-yard rushing duo in NFL history with one being their quarterback is remarkable.

6. You never want to see fumbles, but it really is amazing that miscues at the mesh point between Jackson and Mark Ingram have been so rare this season. John Harbaugh will now hope his team got that seemingly overdue sloppiness out of its system after a season-high three fumbles.

7. On a day when the defense had some trouble getting off the field due to several drive-extending penalties, Chuck Clark was credited with four pass breakups to continue his breakout season. Two of those breakups came on Cleveland’s final three-and-out of the first half.

8. Mark Andrews is three receiving yards shy of Todd Heap’s single-season team record for a tight end, but a tender ankle could impact his Week 17 status. He may need to settle for becoming the third Raven to catch 10 touchdowns in a season, joining Michael Jackson and Torrey Smith.

9. Ingram will have nearly three weeks to recover from a left calf strain, but Justice Hill scoring his first NFL touchdown should provide a confidence boost if the Ravens need to lean on the rookie a little more in the postseason. The fourth-round pick’s opportunities have been limited.

10. L.J. Fort having two interceptions wiped away by a penalty and a replay review prompted me to look up whether he’d ever picked off a pass. His only career interception came in his first NFL game seven years ago — in Cleveland. Quite the coincidence that likely prompted some memories.

11. We know the 2019 Ravens’ legacy will ultimately be defined in the postseason, but Football Outsiders ranks them very favorably among the greatest regular-season teams of the last 35 years. Knowing the best team doesn’t always win the Super Bowl, remember to enjoy the journey — even as the favorite.

12. We place such importance on the postseason while oddly marginalizing it in the record book. That’s why I had bristled some over this year’s team being recognized as having the longest winning streak in franchise history when the 2000 Ravens won 11 in a row overall. They’re now even.

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Opponent doesn’t matter as Ravens seek final clinching win in December

Posted on 19 December 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Sunday’s game in Cleveland isn’t about the Ravens settling a score or exacting revenge against the last team to beat them nearly three months ago.

It’s not about strengthening Lamar Jackson’s position as the MVP favorite, showcasing a record-tying 12 Pro Bowl selections, or collecting more style points in extending their winning streak to 11.

Division rivalry games in December usually carry great meaning, but the class of the AFC North has been clear since Halloween. The final objective for John Harbaugh’s team in the regular season is a single victory to clinch the No. 1 seed in the AFC and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Nothing more, nothing less.

The Browns are just another opponent, regardless of their surprising 40-25 win in Baltimore on Sept. 29.

“We can control our own fate, have two home games no matter what if we win the first playoff game and have that first-round bye,” said 13th-year right guard and Super Bowl XLVII champion Marshal Yanda. “That’s obviously what we’re fighting for, and that’s a huge deal for sure. That shouldn’t change the way we play [Sunday], but obviously, we understand that’s in front of us.”

Much has changed since that first meeting when the Ravens allowed an ugly 40 points, 530 yards, and 193 rushing yards, all season highs. Of the 21 Baltimore players to play defensive snaps in that Week 4 effort, 12 are either in a reduced defensive role, on injured reserve, or out of the organization entirely. Seven players who played 17 or more defensive snaps last week — cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Jimmy Smith, defensive tackles Brandon Williams and Domata Peko, inside linebackers Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort, and rotational pass rusher Jihad Ward — were either not with the organization for that first meeting or out due to injury while another major contributor, starting safety Chuck Clark, played just 14 snaps in Week 4.

That in-season facelift has transformed the Ravens defense from a bottom-10 unit after the first month of the season to one ranking in the top seven in most major categories entering Week 16. Since giving up 30 points in the second half of that Week 4 loss, the Ravens haven’t given up more than 23 in an entire game, improvement that’s cemented their position as the Super Bowl favorite.

“When you get new guys coming in, it’s not one of those, ‘Hurry up and get going, and you’ll get with us when you get with us,’” said Williams, who missed the loss to the Browns due to a knee injury. “We’re picking everybody up, trying to get everybody on the same page. If you come in here, you have to help us to win. We want to get you to your peak as fast as possible.”

The defensive performance in that loss has been the more popular topic of discussion this week, but how the offense fared that day could bring the more relevant lesson for Sunday’s tilt. In a season in which their top-ranked, record-setting scoring offense has come away with points on 10 of its 14 opening drives, the Ravens punted on each of their first three possessions against the Browns and scored just seven points in the first half, allowing the visitor to play with a lead for most of the afternoon.

A repeat of that slow start could give a Cleveland team all but officially eliminated from playoff contention the incentive and energy to play up to its talent level, a rare occurrence in 2019. On the flip side, a fast beginning for the Ravens would sour an already disenchanted crowd for Cleveland’s home finale and likely return the 6-8 Browns to the lifeless funk they showed in a 38-24 loss at Arizona last week.

The objective is clear without any need for extra story lines or drama.

Win one more game against one more regular-season opponent.

“We know they want to sweep us,” Jackson said. “We’re the Ravens, and we’re having so much success this year. That’s what everybody wants to do: beat us. We just have to go into Cleveland and have a good game.”

Yanda strengthens Canton case

Few would have guessed Yanda would one day trail only three Hall of Famers on the Ravens’ all-time Pro Bowl selections list when he was entering his fifth season in Baltimore.

The 2007 third-round pick from Iowa had a solid reputation at that point in his career, but a serious knee injury in his second season and annual questions along the Baltimore offensive line had left Yanda as more of a super-utility lineman, moving back and forth between right guard and right tackle. That versatility prompted the Ravens to extend Yanda prior to the 2011 season, the year he’d finally settle in at right guard and earn his first trip to the Pro Bowl.

After eight Pro Bowls in a nine-year period — the one miss coming in a season in which he played in just two games due to a broken ankle — Yanda continues to build an impressive resume at a position not commonly recognized in Canton.

“It doesn’t matter if you’d made one or you’d made 15, it’s a special deal for sure,” Yanda said. “Everybody works extremely hard. Every year, you start at the bottom of the mountain and you’ve got to climb and you’ve got to put the work in.”

You wonder if he’d have a couple more Pro Bowls to his name and an easier case for the Pro Football Hall of Fame had he settled into the right guard spot sooner, but those early career circumstances may not even matter as his elite reputation continues to grow in his mid-30s.

Special teams mishaps

Special teams coach Chris Horton didn’t offer many specifics about his units’ difficulties in the Week 15 win over the New York Jets, but the urgency is there to rebound on Sunday.

How poor was the special-teams performance? It ranked as Football Outsiders’ worst single-game showing of any team this year in terms of DVOA, dropping the Ravens in special-teams efficiency from fourth to 14th for the season.

“They did some things on kickoff return that we got a chance to see, but we have to just stick to our details,” said Horton, who also cited communication issues on the blocked punt returned for a Jets touchdown. “We have to get off blocks, and we have to go make plays. It just came down to the little details that I always talk about.

“We’re back at it, and we’re looking forward to going out and playing another game.”

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Old question flipped as high-powered Ravens take on Rams

Posted on 23 November 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The question would have been flipped if the Ravens had traveled to Los Angeles to take on the eventual NFC champion Rams a year ago.

How do you make enough stops against an elite offense and produce enough touchdown drives of your own to pull off the upset?

It was the challenge going up against Peyton Manning or Tom Brady for years and most recently facing the Kansas City Chiefs. But that’s all changed in 2019 with MVP favorite Lamar Jackson and the NFL’s top-scoring offense on Baltimore’s side. The Ravens have scored at least 40 points in a game three times — they’d done it only 14 times in their previous 23 years — and have scored no fewer than 23 points in a single game all season after averaging 24.3 per contest last year.

The debate is no longer whether this Ravens offense can be “figured out” as defensive coordinators have lost plenty of sleep trying — and failing — this season. The more realistic challenge is whether an opposing unit can slow it down, something a Rams defense with Pro Bowl talent at every level might be capable of doing on Monday night.

But that brings us to the second part of the original question that’s becoming more problematic for opponents and will be for a middle-of-the-pack Rams offense on Monday. A Ravens defense that was largely a mess after the season’s opening month has arguably been the NFL’s best over the last five weeks. That improvement has made Baltimore the best team in football entering Week 12.

“Go back to the Seahawks game. They got that turnover, and they gave us a boost,” said Jackson, referencing Marcus Peters’ interception return for a touchdown late in the first half of Week 7 win. “We started off very slow, and we needed that edge from our defense. Those guys showed it, and they’ve been proving it each and every week. It just helps us, relying on those guys to stop offenses — great offenses at that.”

The Ravens scored two defensive touchdowns in that road win and held Russell Wilson and Seattle to a season-low 16 points. After the bye, Baltimore registered another defensive touchdown and held Tom Brady and New England to 20 points, the Patriots’ third-worst output of the season. But the most impressive defensive showing of the season came last Sunday when Deshaun Watson and Houston managed only a single touchdown in a 41-7 final, a rare game in which the Ravens offense started slowly with a scoreless first quarter before exploding with points on seven of its next eight drives. Such a slow start two months ago might have left Baltimore in an early hole, but the defense didn’t flinch against one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.

Jackson and the offense haven’t needed help very often this season, but this newfound balance in the midst of a six-game winning streak — the Ravens’ longest in 19 years — is what transforms a Super Bowl hopeful into the favorite to win it all. Offense may drive the modern NFL, but just ask the Patriots how important their defense was in last year’s Super Bowl after being a middling unit during the regular season.

Through the first month of the season, the Ravens looked more like a team that would have to win shootouts against elite competition, something they fell short in doing against Kansas City in Week 3. Surrendering 33 points and more than 500 yards of offense to the Chiefs was one thing, but Cleveland coming into M&T Bank Stadium the following week to score 40 and go over the 500-yard mark was the breaking point. Changes were in order for defensive coordinator Wink Martindale’s unit that had lost outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith, inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, and safety Eric Weddle in the offseason and was searching for its identity.

“Every team makes mistakes on the field. But early in the year when a guy would make a mistake, another guy didn’t just fall into that place and cover for him,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “I think it was new guys and some new spots. It took us a while to gel, but now we’ve been gelling. Yes, there have still been some same mistakes, but guys are covering for guys and we’re seeing things a little bit differently just because the communication and really knowing each other has really helped out.

“That’s really come from Wink, too. We put our foot down after those two losses and said, ‘Look, if we’re going to be a great defense, we have to do some things a little differently.'”

Dissatisfied with a young group of inside linebackers that was struggling to fill the void left by Mosley, the Ravens signed veterans Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort, moved Patrick Onwuasor from the middle back to his old weak-side position, and benched Kenny Young and Chris Board. Those changes paid immediate dividends in a road win at Pittsburgh with Bynes taking over as the “Mike” linebacker and recording an interception on the second defensive drive of the game. Bynes and Fort weren’t Pro Bowl-caliber additions, but they brought more down-to-down consistency to a position that had been highly problematic early on.

After the defense made incremental improvement against the Steelers and Cincinnati, general manager Eric DeCosta made the season-altering acquisition of Peters, sending only the benched Young and a 2020 fifth-round pick to the Rams in return. A secondary that had lost slot cornerback Tavon Young and starting safety Tony Jefferson to season-ending injuries and veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith to a multi-week knee injury now had a legitimate play-maker in Peters to begin the daunting stretch of six out of seven games against teams with winning records.

Peters wasted no time making an impact, returning a Wilson interception 67 yards for a touchdown in his first game as a Raven and following that with another interception return for a score against Cincinnati two weeks later. Baltimore knew it was getting a two-time Pro Bowl selection who had led the NFL in interceptions since the start of 2015, but Peters’ football intellect is what has resonated with teammates and coaches since he arrived in Owings Mills less than six weeks ago.

“You really don’t know until a guy gets into your locker room and into the defensive meetings of how football smart they are,” Martindale said. “He’s a savant when it comes to playing corner and routes and everything else. That’s been really refreshing because as I’ve said many times, knowledge is power in this league. You can see with his play that he has a lot of knowledge, and that’s what has jumped out the most to me.”

Peters was the marquee addition, but the in-season reset of the defense has been a collaborative effort, starting with DeCosta and the pro personnel department bringing in the aforementioned names as well as other role players such as Jihad Ward, Domata Peko, and Justin Ellis to fortify depth. Martindale and his coaching staff have done an exceptional job making strategic adjustments and bringing new players up to speed to be able to contribute immediately. And incumbents have stepped up, ranging from longtime veteran Brandon Williams playing his best football in recent memory to former reserve safety Chuck Clark stepping into a starting role and relaying calls in the defensive huddle.

The details of the path weren’t anticipated, but this Ravens defense was always built for the secondary to lead the way, which is exactly what we’ve seen in recent weeks. The addition of Peters and Smith’s return from injury have made the group as versatile as ever, evident by the amount of dime and quarter looks deployed in which Clark moves into the box and veteran cornerback Brandon Carr enters at safety.

Such sub packages allow Martindale to be more selective with his use of inside linebackers, who have fared much better as situational contributors than every-down players. It’s a far cry from the days of the Ravens having a perennial Pro Bowl selection like Ray Lewis or Mosley in the middle, but the defense being so multiple is working.

Last week, the tight coverage on the back end finally paid off for a maligned pass rush that registered a season-high seven sacks against Watson and a top-10 passing game. What the Ravens lack in standout pass rushers they’ve made up for with lock-down coverage that forces quarterbacks to hold the ball — against frequent blitzing — or attempt throws into tighter windows. It’s a defensive roster-building philosophy endorsed by the football analytics community that’s now paying off with roster tweaking and improved health in the secondary.

Opponents are now discovering they not only need to find a way to slow Jackson and the Ravens offense but also crack a confident defense growing stingier by the week. Seattle, New England, and Houston learned the hard way, and the increasingly desperate Rams face that unenviable task Monday night.

Even if the talented Los Angeles defense is able to make some stops, will Rams quarterback Jared Goff and his offense be able to do enough against the Baltimore defense for it to matter?

“It just starts to reveal who we are and what we can be if we keep doing what we’ve been doing. It’s been fun. It’s been going by like that though,” said safety Earl Thomas as he snapped his fingers. “We’ve been at it with some tough opponents, but we’ve been standing up. It’s just been one after another.

“We’ve just been proving people wrong. Let’s just keep doing it.”

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Ravens sign veteran linebacker L.J. Fort to two-year extension

Posted on 08 November 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Five weeks ago, journeyman linebacker L.J. Fort was just learning the defensive playbook after being signed by the Ravens.

He’ll now have a chance to settle in with Baltimore after agreeing to a two-year contract extension worth $5.5 million and $3.25 million fully guaranteed at signing, according to NFL Network. Having just been released by Philadelphia, Fort signed with the Ravens on Sept. 30 and — along with fellow veteran newcomer Josh Bynes — helped stabilized an inside linebacker group that had struggled mightily in the first month of the season.

“He’s played well in everything we’ve asked him to do,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “He’s been out there a lot on defense [in] different packages and special teams as well. He has just proven to be a good player, a good fit for us, and we’re excited to have him going forward.”

In four games (three starts) with the Ravens, the 29-year-old Fort has collected 14 tackles, one sack, and a pass breakup, making an impression that prompted general manager Eric DeCosta to retain him beyond the 2019 season. Bynes and weak-side inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor are also scheduled to become free agents next March, which could have impacted the timing of Fort’s extension.

An undrafted free agent from Northern Iowa in 2012, Fort has spent time with Cleveland, Denver, Seattle, Cincinnati, New England, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia in his career. In 69 career games, the 6-foot, 232-pound linebacker has collected 99 tackles, four sacks, an interception, and eight pass breakups while mostly serving in a special-teams capacity.

Fort is the fifth pending 2020 free agent to be extended in DeCosta’s first calendar year as general manager, joining guard Marshal Yanda, cornerback Tavon Young, kicker Justin Tucker, and wide receiver Willie Snead.

“It’s a big plus. You think [about] the short term, obviously, and we’ve made some really strong moves. He (Fort) was part of the short-term moves as well,” Harbaugh said. “Obviously, we do a great job thinking about the long term as well. Those are definitely two things that are parallel tracks that you have to be thinking about all the time.”

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 7 win at Seattle

Posted on 22 October 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens winning for the first time ever in Seattle and going into the bye week with a 5-2 record after a 30-16 victory, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Just three weeks after a disastrous performance against Cleveland, the Baltimore defense held the red-hot Russell Wilson and the Seahawks to 16 points while scoring two touchdowns of its own. Eric DeCosta and Wink Martindale deserve much credit for revamping and stabilizing this unit on the fly.

2. After taking two cross-country flights in just over 48 hours and learning a new defensive playbook in a few days, Marcus Peters couldn’t have had a more impressive Ravens debut with his 67-yard interception return for a score. It helped that he’d played Seattle two weeks earlier.

3. Taking away three quarterback kneels, Lamar Jackson averaged nearly 11 yards per carry on Sunday. Jackson is third in the NFL in rushing since Week 2 and has totaled more rushing yards than seven other teams. Don’t let understandable concern for his health cloud how special this really is.

4. Jackson ran all over the Seahawks despite having problems with which cleats to wear on the slippery CenturyLink Field turf. I had to chuckle over his post-game comment about a linebacker catching him being unacceptable. Quarterbacks usually say something like that about defensive tackles.

5. Earl Thomas didn’t make any game-changing plays against his old team, but you couldn’t help but feel he truly became a Raven on Sunday as so many teammates expressed strong desire to win for him. The veteran safety’s emotion after Jackson’s 30-yard run in the fourth quarter said it all.

6. The conditions weren’t easy, but Jackson and the offense need more from their pass catchers. Mark Andrews will rebound from his nightmare performance and Marquise Brown is expected back after the bye, but a more consistent No. 3 option feels like a must with some tough opposing defenses looming.

7. Josh Bynes was a familiar name and had made 40 career starts prior to returning to Baltimore, but L.J. Fort had made only three NFL starts and played more than 100 defensive snaps in a season just once. Fort’s play has been superb compared to even the most optimistic expectations.

8. The fourth-down touchdown in Seattle will be remembered for years to come, but it wouldn’t have been possible without Jackson’s third-down completion to Hayden Hurst earlier in that drive. It was an excellent throw on the run and a good catch on the sideline.

9. Seeing Marshal Yanda’s agreement with Jackson wanting to go for the fourth-and-8 and his post-touchdown reaction says much about the 22-year-old quarterback’s leadership. The seven-time Pro Bowl guard carries no bravado, so to see such genuine excitement was really something.

10. I was a little surprised to see John Harbaugh call for the field goal after the recent analytics talk, but how he handled Jackson’s desire to go for it is what makes him such a good coach. The decision was ultimately his, but he knows when to trust his players.

11. Nearly 5 1/2 years after being selected in the sixth round of the 2014 draft by the New York Giants, reserve safety Bennett Jackson made his NFL debut with a tackle on the Ravens’ first kickoff of the game. What a special moment for the Notre Dame product and his family.

12. Remember that discussion about the October woes in recent years? After going 7-17 in October games from 2013-18, the Ravens went 3-0 with victories at Pittsburgh and Seattle, two of the more difficult places to play in the NFL. Not a bad way to go into the bye week.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 6 win over Cincinnati

Posted on 15 October 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens winning their second straight game in a 23-17 final against Cincinnati, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Sunday reminded how small the margin for error is in the NFL in a game Baltimore dominated statistically. A kick return and a fumble led to 10 first-half points for the Bengals and turned what could have been a comfortable win into a one-score game.

2. Lamar Jackson rushing a season-high 19 times predictably reignited the debate over how much running is too much, but Colin Kaepernick and Michael Vick are the only two NFL quarterbacks to ever run for more yards in a game. Let’s not forget we’re watching someone special here.

3. That we barely mentioned Jackson completing 63.6 percent of his passes for 236 yards speaks to how much he’s improved in that department. He didn’t have to make too many difficult throws against the Bengals, but he remains on pace for a 4,000-yard season through the air.

4. Jackson has a total of two fumbles through six games after fumbling at least once in each of his eight starts last year. It’s just another box the young quarterback has checked after so much fair concern about his ball security.

5. The defense allowed just 4.5 yards per play and played well despite the pass rush being a non-factor until late in the game. Andy Dalton does average the quickest time from snap to throw among quarterbacks with at least 90 attempts, but pressuring the passer remains a big problem.

6. I was intrigued to see Wink Martindale use four outside linebackers at one time to rush the passer with some success on a handful of plays. We saw that look a few times early last year and will probably see more of it moving forward.

7. Mark Andrews said he’s not going to stop being himself on the field, but Ravens tight ends should probably chill on the hurdling a little bit after his fumble. We’ve seen a few fun highlights, but a turnover that cost Baltimore points outweighs the minimal positives.

8. Even with Patrick Onwuasor out because of an ankle injury, Kenny Young and Chris Board failed to play a single defensive snap against the Bengals. Credit Eric DeCosta and the coaching staff for regrouping on the fly, but what an offseason miscalculation that was at the inside linebacker position.

9. You hoped Marquise Brown’s absence might lead to Jackson’s in-game chemistry growing with other wide receivers, but none registered more than three receptions or 28 receiving yards. The 18-yard gain to Miles Boykin on a run-pass option was encouraging, but that was about it.

10. Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort started at inside linebacker, Chuck Clark is wearing the green-dot helmet and starting at safety, Pernell McPhee is averaging a career high for snaps, and former practice-squad safety Bennett Jackson is now on the 53-man roster. Just how we pictured it this summer, right?

11. The Ravens are tied for the NFL’s easiest schedule thus far, but Dallas lost to the winless Jets and the Chargers were flattened by one-win Pittsburgh and its third-string quarterback. It’s a strange, week-to-week league that’s more about survival than expecting to play your best football for all 16 games.

12. Few would have expected Anquan Boldin to retire as a Raven after the organization foolishly traded him away after Super Bowl XLVII, but it was great seeing him back in Baltimore as Sunday’s “Legend of the Game.” He shared the following story during his retirement press conference:

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Ravens-Steelers: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 06 October 2019 by Luke Jones

PITTSBURGH — Changes to the defense headlined the Ravens’ inactive list prior to Sunday’s AFC North showdown with Pittsburgh.

Ranked 27th in total defense after allowing a total of 73 points and over 1,000 yards in its two-game losing streak, Baltimore deactivated inside linebacker Kenny Young and cornerback Anthony Averett despite the two serving as starters in Week 4 and over much of the first quarter of the season. Averett had lost playing time to cornerback Maurice Canady in each of the last two games while Young sits after the Ravens signed veteran inside linebackers Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort earlier in the week.

During pre-game warmups, Bynes was lining up as the starter next to Onwuasor, a remarkable development considering he last played in an NFL game last November and hadn’t been with a team since being released by Arizona in early March. Bynes, 30, registered 40 starts over his first eight seasons.

It’s no secret the coaching staff has been displeased with the performance of the inside linebackers, and fellow second-year player Chris Board is a better special-teams player than Young, explaining why he was active over the 2018 fourth-round pick. Averett being inactive means the Ravens have just five true cornerbacks available for Sunday’s game, a list that includes starters Marlon Humphrey and Brandon Carr, Canady, and special-teams contributors Cyrus Jones and Justin Bethel.

Center Matt Skura (knee) and defensive tackle Brandon Williams (knee) are both active and will play after missing practice time this week and being listed as questionable on the final injury report. Jones is also active despite showing up as questionable on the injury report with a foot issue on Friday.

Wanting extra depth with Williams not 100 percent, the Ravens elevated defensive lineman Zach Sieler to the 53-man roster from the practice squad Saturday. He will be part of the rotation including Williams, Michael Pierce, Chris Wormley, and Patrick Ricard. Rookie Daylon Mack played only nine snaps in his NFL debut last week and was deactivated for Week 5.

After some substantial injury questions throughout the week, the Steelers will have the services of top wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (toe) and starting tight end Vance McDonald (shoulder). McDonald missed Pittsburgh’s Week 4 win over Cincinnati while Smith-Schuster re-injured his toe against the Bengals.

These teams are meeting for the 47th time in the regular season with the Steelers leading 25-21, but the teams are 4-4 over the last four seasons. Including the playoffs, the Ravens are 12-13 against Pittsburgh in the John Harbaugh era.

The Weather.com forecast in Pittsburgh calls for cloudy skies and temperatures reaching the low 70s with the chance of some afternoon showers and winds 10 to 15 miles per hour.

Walt Anderson is the referee Sunday’s game.

The Ravens are wearing white jerseys with purple pants while Pittsburgh dons its black tops with yellow pants.

Here are Sunday’s inactives:

BALTIMORE
ILB Kenny Young
CB Anthony Averett
QB Trace McSorley
CB Jimmy Smith
WR Jaleel Scott
G Ben Powers
DT Daylon Mack

PITTSBURGH
WR Donte Moncrief
FB Roosevelt Nix
OLB Anthony Chickillo
G Fred Johnson
OT Chukwuma Okorafor
TE Zach Gentry
DE Isaiah Buggs

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