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Twelve Ravens thoughts counting down to training camp

Posted on 13 July 2020 by Luke Jones

With the tentative start date for training camp only two weeks away, I’ve offered a dozen Ravens thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Matthew Judon and the Ravens have until 4 p.m. Wednesday to strike a long-term deal and avoid the outside linebacker playing for the $16.8 million franchise tag amount. Deadlines drive negotiations, but the economic uncertainty stemming from the pandemic dims optimism. They’re not alone.

2. The dearth of lucrative extensions around the NFL this offseason didn’t stop Kansas City from signing Patrick Mahomes to the largest contract in league history. Upon seeing the news of the $450 million deal, I couldn’t help but ponder Lamar Jackson’s celebration sometime in the next 12 to 18 months.

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3. It still hasn’t sunk in that we’ll see fewer than 14,000 fans per game at M&T Bank Stadium if spectators are even permitted to attend at all in 2020. The thrill of going to a game — and even the annoyances — won’t be taken for granted whenever normalcy returns.

4. Coaches will bristle at the reduced or canceled slate of preseason games, but I won’t shed any tears over the disappearance of shoddy exhibitions presented as premium entertainment. Good organizations will evaluate young players just fine. Incompetent ones probably weren’t getting it right anyway.

5. An above-average player from the moment he stepped on the field three years ago and developing into one of three Ravens cornerbacks ever to make a Pro Bowl, Marlon Humphrey just turned 24. With another top-shelf campaign at that age, why wouldn’t he expect to become the NFL’s highest-paid corner?

6. It’s easy — and fair — to point to Greg Roman’s run-first scheme creating so many open throws, but Jackson leading the NFL in expected points added on passes into tight windows throws cold water on any lingering doubts about the reigning MVP’s passing ceiling. Just enjoy the ride.

7. That doesn’t mean Jackson and the offense are destined to be better or as good as they were in 2019. Especially in the midst of a pandemic that’s disrupted much, the variance of a 16-game schedule could rear its head more than ever. Pro Football Focus explores that nicely HERE.

8. According to PFF, the Ravens enjoyed a lead for 644 offensive snaps last year, the league’s most by a margin of 57 over second-place New England. Regression toward the mean in this area wouldn’t be surprising, but that could provide Jackson the opportunity to show growth when playing from behind.

9. Kudos to the NFL for exploring a pragmatic answer to help make playing football more feasible this fall by working with Oakley to develop face shields for helmets. The question will be how many players find them comfortable enough to buy in.

10. Less credit to the rule prohibiting players from exchanging jerseys after games, which feels much more like security theater. If we’re testing players and deeming them safe enough to play for three hours, this shouldn’t be a concern. If it is, you can probably guess what I’d say next.

11. Recency bias hurt the fan-voted “All-Time 25 Team.” Jackson over Joe Flacco was wrong but forgivable, but Steve Smith over Derrick Mason, Torrey Smith, and Qadry Ismail was bad. This wasn’t about projecting the future or recognizing the best overall player who happened to once play here. Mason deserved better.

12. Speaking of the upcoming 25th season, I’ll offer a final mention of my series on the top 25 regular-season moments in franchise history. At a time with little taking place in sports, I enjoyed this stroll down memory lane. Let’s hope we have the opportunity to witness more this fall.

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Five takeaways from interview session with Ravens coordinators

Posted on 24 June 2020 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens making defensive coordinator Wink Martindale, offensive coordinator Greg Roman, and special teams coach Chris Horton available to local media for the first time since the end of the 2019 season, below are five takeaways from their video conference calls on Tuesday:

Establishing culture was king of the virtual offseason program.

We all know coaches and players were prohibited from gathering together in Owings Mills, but that doesn’t mean spring work was limited to individual training, film study, and X’s and O’s sessions via Zoom and other virtual programs.

In addition to extensive discussions on race and social justice reform following the killing of George Floyd and the powerful video released by the organization earlier this month, building and maintaining camaraderie and a strong team culture was a top priority for head coach John Harbaugh and his staff despite the inability to congregate in person. The “Chasing Greatness” series included whole-team sessions with Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed as well as former Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith, but Martindale took that initiative further with his defensive meetings, seeking out prominent names from both the sports world and other walks of life.

“As an old high school teacher, I taught some boring subjects. I think you had to be creative,” Martindale said. “My challenge and our challenge as a defensive staff was I wanted to make it must-see Zoom meetings. … You do get Zoom fatigue, but I wanted to make it where [players] couldn’t wait to come to the defensive meetings. We wanted to make it an event.”

The list of guest speakers included former Ravens defensive standouts Eric Weddle and Tony Siragusa, former Ravens special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg, former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, Basketball Hall of Famer Julius Erving, former heavyweight boxing champion Larry Holmes, former National League MVP Ryan Howard, former All-Pro pass rusher DeMarcus Ware, Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari, former NFL defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, Baltimore mayoral nominee Brandon Scott, ESPN anchor Sage Steele, and former Navy Seal Commander Mark McGinnis.

Martindale said he wants his defense and the Ravens to continue to build “a champion mindset,” noting the many accomplishments of the aforementioned speakers.

Experimenting further with last year’s “revolutionary” offense will be a balancing act. 

At this time a year ago, intrigue and mystery surrounded the new Ravens offense that Harbaugh dared to call “revolutionary” on more than one occasion.

What resulted was a historic MVP season from second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson and a run-first attack that set league and franchise records. The Baltimore coaching staff prides itself in remaining a step or two ahead of the competition, but visions of revolutionizing the game again should probably be tempered when the 2020 offense has yet to even huddle up on the field, let alone to try out new plays and packages.

“We haven’t had the luxury of the [organized team activities] and whatnot to really kind of test-run certain things, so we have to be really judicious with how we use that time in training camp to experiment,” Roman said. “I think experimenting this year is going to be very selective. Yes, definitely we’ve tweaked, we’ve added, updated, but how much we experiment in training camp, we’re really going to have to be selective with that.”

Of course, the Ravens have a superb baseline from which to work, and the rest of the league — that’s facing the same challenges — rarely showed the ability to slow down Jackson and this offense last year.

Improving in the return game is a point of emphasis for special teams.

Baltimore’s special teams weren’t perceived as favorably in 2019 as in previous years, but Horton downplayed any coverage concerns while stating the goal of being more productive with returns.

The Ravens ranked 21st in the NFL in kick return efficiency and 14th in punt return efficiency last year, according to Football Outsiders.

“We did a lot of studying this offseason, and that’s one area that we feel like we can be better in,” Horton said. “Whether it’s how we’re coaching it [or] how our players are responding to that coaching.”

This offseason, the Ravens re-signed return specialist De’Anthony Thomas and drafted James Proche and Devin Duvernay, two wide receivers with return experience at the collegiate level.

Expectations are high for a healthy Marquise Brown in his second season.

Many have noted that the 2019 first-round pick has looked bigger and stronger in workout videos posted on social media, a sentiment shared by Ravens coaches.

Devoting most of his rookie offseason to working his way back from Lisfranc surgery and with his left foot never 100 percent, Brown still managed to catch 46 passes for 584 yards and seven touchdowns in 14 games. The 170-pound wideout was also one of the few standout performers in the divisional-round loss to Tennessee with seven catches for 126 yards.

“Last year, all of us were saying, ‘Wow, once ‘Hollywood’ has an offseason — a real offseason — that’s going to be something,'” Roman said. “I think we are going to see that this year. He’s been working really hard. He’s not dealing with certain aspects that he had to deal with last year, and he did a great job of fighting through that and battling through it.”

Those high expectations for Brown haven’t made the Antonio Brown rumors and reports go away, but it’s clear the Ravens envision a significant jump from their talented 23-year-old receiver.

Even if the NFL can endure through the pandemic, much unknown remains.

We have no definitive idea when and if football will be played this year, but plenty of mystery remains even if the altered spring program proves to be the last of the major disruptions to the league calendar.

Veteran newcomers and first-year players alike haven’t had the opportunities to build on-field muscle memory in learning their new playbooks and systems. Trying to formulate a preliminary depth chart for training camp remains little more than guesswork at certain positions without the opportunity to evaluate during OTA sessions and mandatory minicamp.

And by this point, coaches have at least gained a working idea of what they have with their rookies, spotting deficiencies that may not have shown up in the pre-draft process and identifying later-round picks or undrafted talents as potential diamonds in the rough to watch this preseason.

“The rookie minicamps [in early May], it’s like Christmas Day for coaches,” Martindale said. “You can’t wait to see the new toys you have and what they can do and how much fun it would be to put them in the package. That’s just been pushed back.”

Of course, those unknowns don’t even include the exhaustive steps required to combat COVID-19 outbreaks. All parties continue to prepare and hope for the best-case scenario of a season that’s as close to normal as possible, but the potential alternatives are unsettling and not going away anytime soon.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts with virtual offseason program winding down

Posted on 22 June 2020 by Luke Jones

With the virtual offseason workout program concluding and attention turning toward the uncertainty of opening training camp next month, I’ve offered a dozen Ravens thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Despite Dr. Anthony Fauci’s recent comments and positive cases around the NFL, John Harbaugh remains optimistic about playing the season, saying he won’t “run scared from a virus” while also acknowledging uncertainty and following protocols. Some will interpret that as cavalier, but coaches and players must prepare with full commitment.

2. All teams are in the same boat, of course, but Harbaugh predictably acknowledged the Ravens being “behind” where they’d normally be at this point. Much like it was with the 2011 lockout, continuity should be in Baltimore’s favor both with the coaching ranks and the roster.

3. With the NFLPA recommending players refrain from gathering for private workouts due to recent increases in positive cases, you wonder how rough those early practices could be even if training camp begins on time. At least with that 2011 lockout, players could work out together as much as they wanted.

4. Asked about Lamar Jackson playing beach football and hurdling a jet ski, Harbaugh said any conversation he’s had with the league MVP it will remain internal. It’s not the first or last time a team will hope to see a young star exercise a bit more caution. No biggie.

5. While describing Matt Skura’s recovery from a major knee injury as “remarkable,” Harbaugh said the Ravens should be fully healthy going into training camp and will “roll from there.” The health of players will definitely carry some additional connotations for the coming season.

6. Harbaugh is “very anxious” to see D.J. Fluker compete this summer and has been pleased with the veteran guard’s ability to learn the offense and keep up with the training program. It’s strange to remember coaches have yet to meet many newcomers to their rosters.

7. Asked about undrafted free agents and the increased difficulty those players could face in making the team, Harbaugh even lamented individuals who never got their chance to try out at rookie camp and be signed to the 90-man roster later on. Justin Tucker fit that description in 2012.

8. Those challenges as well as the reality of trying to play through a pandemic is why potentially expanding practice squads from 12 to as many as 16 players makes perfect sense. Keeping more talent in organizations would ease short-term outbreak concerns and benefit these players in the long run.

9. Baltimore has expressed interest in Pro Bowl safety Jamal Adams before, but giving up what would likely be premium draft picks and committing to another top-of-the-market extension in addition to the upcoming deals we’ve discussed ad nauseam feels farfetched. But you never know.

10. According to Inside the League’s Neil Stratton, longtime scout Lonnie Young has retired to enter the private sector after more than a decade with the Ravens. You hate losing experience, but a successful organization is used to seeing good people move on from time to time.

11. Harbaugh said he respects Jackson’s recent comments about the Ravens taking Tennessee too lightly while disagreeing with the sentiment, saying his team “just didn’t play well.” That’s certainly true, but I’ll maintain having that extra week to hear such effusive praise from everyone didn’t help.

12. I try to avoid “hot takes” from national media types, but a year in which a pandemic canceled the normal spring program, is threatening to disrupt training camp, and could result in any player testing positive at any point isn’t when I’m going to ponder the Ravens going 16-0. Sorry.

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Ravens regular-season moment No. 6: “Would it be us if we didn’t end it that way?”

Posted on 18 June 2020 by Luke Jones

Check out the No. 7 regular-season moment in Ravens history HERE.

The Ravens defense was determined not to let it happen again.

On Christmas Day in 2016, a last-second touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown had given Pittsburgh a 31-27 win that eliminated Baltimore from postseason contention in Week 16.

On New Year’s Eve the following year, Andy Dalton’s 49-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Boyd on fourth-and-12 had stunned the Ravens, who entered the season finale with a projected 97-percent chance of making the playoffs. The heartbreaking collapse resulted in the Ravens missing the postseason for the third straight year, the first time that had happened since their first four years in Baltimore.

A defense that had been among the NFL’s best statistically the previous two years had come up small at the most critical times, but the 2018 Ravens were riding momentum entering Week 17 after winning five of six games since the bye week to take the AFC North lead. Rookie Lamar Jackson taking over for the injured Joe Flacco at quarterback had provided the spark for a team in transition, but the league’s top-ranked defense had played at a championship level down the stretch, most recently holding the explosive Los Angeles Chargers to 10 points in one of the Ravens’ biggest road victories in years.

All that was needed for John Harbaugh’s team to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2014 was a win over Cleveland, who had played well down the stretch with rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield at the helm. After what had happened against the Bengals at home the previous year, no one in Baltimore had any reason to be overlooking the Browns, who had also won five of their last six games.

That warning appeared overblown early as the run-heavy Ravens jumped to a 20-7 lead and were on the verge of blowing the game wide open late in the first half. However, on third-and-goal from the Cleveland 1, Jackson tried to hurdle the pile and extend the ball toward the goal line, but it was knocked loose before breaking the plane and recovered by Cleveland.

The game was much different in the second half as the Browns held the Ravens to just two field goals while Mayfield rebounded from a poor first half to throw two touchdown passes. His short scoring throw to Antonio Callaway cut the Baltimore lead to 26-24 with 3:24 remaining. And when the Ravens offense answered with a three-and-out, the gut-wrenching memories of the previous two years consumed a sold-out M&T Bank Stadium crowd.

The feeling of dread grew as completions of 19 and 16 yards — each confirmed by replay reviews — gave the Browns a first-and-10 at the Baltimore 39 with 1:20 remaining. Kicker Greg Joseph had missed a 46-yard attempt in the same direction to conclude the first half, so Cleveland needed more yardage and likely another first down to feel confident about giving him another try.

It couldn’t possibly happen again, could it?

Unlike those previous times, first-year defensive coordinator Wink Martindale was now in charge. Predecessor Dean Pees was often criticized for being passive in such late-game situations, but Martindale was influenced by the late Buddy Ryan and embraced a more aggressive approach with his defense.

On first down, Martindale blitzed Mayfield, whose sideline throw to tight end David Njoku was broken up by dime back Anthony Levine. The Ravens rushed six on second down, forcing another Mayfield incompletion. With Baltimore blitzing yet again on third-and-10, Levine broke up another pass intended for Njoku.

The stage was set for fourth down with a division title and a chance to avenge the previous two years on the line for the Ravens.

With Martindale deploying his fourth straight Cover-0 blitz, Mayfield was hurried by an unblocked Matthew Judon and threw over the middle toward running back Duke Johnson. Delaying his drop into pass coverage to deceive the Cleveland quarterback, Pro Bowl inside linebacker C.J. Mosley leaped, batted the ball in the air, and secured the interception.

Mosley and his defensive teammates sprinted the length of the field in celebration.

There would be no “Immaculate Extension” or “Fourth-and-12” this time around as the Ravens were AFC North champions for the first time since 2012 and back in the playoffs. Making the moment even sweeter was that it eliminated Pittsburgh as Steelers players were watching the end of the Baltimore-Cleveland game on the Heinz Field video board after their win over Cincinnati.

A Ravens defense that had folded under the pressure of previous big moments had finally broken through.

“Would it be us if we didn’t end it that way?” Judon said in the celebratory locker room. “Last year, the fourth-and-12, that’s all we see and that’s all we remember. And then we come down [before] fourth-and-10, Levine made two hell of a plays on man coverage, tight coverage. And then that fourth down, C.J., you can’t say enough about that guy.”

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Baltimore Ravens running back Gus Edwards runs for a touchdown against the Houston Texans during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

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Edwards, Ravens’ historic ground game still aiming for “step forward” in 2020

Posted on 17 June 2020 by Luke Jones

The revolutionary Ravens offense rushed for an NFL-record 3,296 yards on the way to a 14-2 record last season.

Quarterback Lamar Jackson (1,206) and running backs Mark Ingram (1,018) and Gus Edwards (711) each ran for more than 700 yards. In contrast, seven NFL teams didn’t have a single 700-yard rusher in 2019.

Now adding the second-round selection of Ohio State star running back J.K. Dobbins to the mix, could the Baltimore ground game improve in 2020?

“It’s going to be difficult to do better than what we did last year with breaking the rushing record, but I think it’s a step forward,” Edwards said in a Wednesday conference call. “It’s a definite step towards that because he’s a great back and all. He’s going to make the competition that much better in the running back room.”

Consider the Ravens ran for nearly 1,000 more yards than second-place San Francisco and over 2,000 more yards than the New York Jets and Miami in 2019. Only one other team — the Michael Vick-led 2006 Atlanta Falcons — has sniffed 3,000 rushing yards in the 21st century and just 12 other teams have even eclipsed the 2,500-yard mark in a season since the beginning of the John Harbaugh era in 2008.

In other words, improving upon — or even matching — those raw numbers and efficiency will be a very tall order, especially in a sport where the passing game has been proven as the more efficient way to move the ball and score points in the long run. The record-setting pace was certainly aided by the Ravens rarely trailing last season, allowing them to lean even more heavily on the run in the second half of games. One can’t assume those multi-score leads will come quite as easily in the new season as we saw what happened when Baltimore fell behind multiple scores in the playoff loss to Tennessee.

There’s also the question about the number of carries to go around.

Even without Dobbins in the picture last season, Edwards and his shiny 5.3 yards per attempt average received just 133 carries — many in short-yardage situations — behind Ingram and Jackson in the pecking order while 2019 fourth-round pick Justice Hill only saw 58. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s long-held stance that you can never have too many running backs could be put to the test, especially if the Ravens have designs of Jackson and the offense taking another step forward through the air.

“Coach Roman is just committed to it. It seems like coach Harbaugh is committed to it,” said Edwards about the competition for carries. “Everybody is just throwing around a ‘four-headed monster.’ I think everybody is committed to it and really wants to do it. That’s the first step and we’ll see where it goes. I’m excited.

“It’s a chance to make history.”

It’s a great problem to have on paper, of course, but reality could prove more challenging.

Cutting down on the number of times Jackson carries the ball may make sense in the big picture, but arbitrarily redistributing some of his attempts to running backs is highly unlikely to produce the same NFL-best 6.9 yards per carry the league MVP averaged a year ago. Dobbins is an intriguing talent, but his addition doesn’t change the reality of Jackson being the transcendent force in this running game or the simple math of there being only one football.

There’s also the business side with many viewing Dobbins as the running back of the future and a signal that the 30-year-old Ingram could be a salary cap casualty next winter despite his 1,000-yard season that resulted in a trip to the Pro Bowl last year. That’s not to suggest Ingram or any other Ravens back will be anything but a team player, but the earning potential at the position is as tenuous as ever, making touches and statistics that much more important.

Entering his third season, Edwards will be a restricted free agent next year and is certainly aiming to continue making his mark after exploding on the scene as an undrafted free agent from Rutgers in the second half of 2018.

“I think that’s how I want myself to be remembered as somebody that works hard,” said Edwards, who’s averaged an impressive 5.3 yards per carry in his brief career. “That’s what the team thinks of me. I’m going to be in a great position with a great team, a team that wants to run the ball. Everything is in front of me. I just have [to take] another step forward.”

The ground game is certainly deeper and should easily remain the NFL’s best by a significant margin, but making history once again could prove difficult in more ways than one.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts on training camp preparations and other topics

Posted on 10 June 2020 by Luke Jones

With Ravens coaches returning to the Owings Mills headquarters this week and the NFL releasing protocols for training facilities, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The July 28 report date for training camp is seven weeks away, but much work remains regarding COVID-19 protocols. The recent expansion and renovations of the team facility helps, but spacing lockers six feet apart for a 90-man roster will be quite a challenge by itself.

2. NFL Network’s report on the possibility of the preseason schedule being shortened was hardly a surprise since there was growing support for that long before the pandemic. The bigger question might be whether that sparks permanent change to the exhibition schedule.

3. Pittsburgh moving its camp to Heinz Field raises a fair question for teams that already struggled to find space for 90 players before even factoring in social distancing. A shorter preseason makes you wonder if that high number is absolutely necessary if you want to minimize health risks. Difficult questions.

4. Patrick Queen, Devin Duvernay, and Malik Harrison are the only 2020 Ravens draft picks yet to sign, but we’re approaching the time when you’d expect those rookie deals to get done. Of course, the pandemic could always complicate that timing.

5. Social media hardly provides a complete picture of the work so many players are putting in right now, but James Proche has logged recent workouts with Lamar Jackson, Robert Griffin III, and Trace McSorley. Good for the sixth-round rookie wide receiver getting acquainted with Baltimore quarterbacks.

6. You won’t find a more respected person in the organization than tight ends coach Bobby Engram, who was nominated for the PFWA’s George Halas Award for overcoming adversity to succeed. I recommend this piece from The Athletic’s Jeff Zrebiec if you’re unfamiliar with the Engram family’s story.

7. The value of the return specialist isn’t what it used to be due to rule changes in the game, but I can’t recall the last time we weren’t talking about that spot being a question mark around this time of year. The days of Jacoby Jones?

8. In contrast, Sam Koch is the only player to have any punts for the Ravens since 2006 and Justin Tucker is the only one to make a field goal since 2012. That continuity is just remarkable compared to most teams. Tennessee had four different kickers last season alone.

9. We’ve talked so much about inside linebacker the last couple years that I couldn’t help but notice Ravens coaching analyst and former player Zach Orr celebrated his 28th birthday on Tuesday. He thankfully escaped football without serious injury, but you wonder how much better he might have become.

10. Dick Cass, Ed Reed, Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith, Ray Rice, Steve Smith, Calais Campbell, and Queen were among the current and former Ravens joining over 1,400 sports figures in signing a letter to Congress requesting an end to qualified immunity. I applaud them for making their voices heard.

11. Have you ever imagined what might have happened if Baltimore signed Colin Kaepernick? Does he replace a Joe Flacco who had a bad back in 2017? Reunited with Greg Roman, does Kaepernick thrive and keep the starting job? Does Lamar Jackson then wind up elsewhere? Quite the potential butterfly effect.

12. Kudos to the Ravens for putting out the following video for high school and college graduates. We all had different school experiences, but I can’t imagine not being able to enjoy those final weeks or to celebrate these accomplishments with friends and family.

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Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) looks to pass, during the first half at an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

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Ravens regular-season moment No. 10: “Not bad for a running back”

Posted on 09 June 2020 by Luke Jones

Check out the No. 11 regular-season moment in Ravens history HERE.

No one knew exactly what to expect from Lamar Jackson entering his first full season as starting quarterback.

The 2018 first-round pick had replaced longtime starter and former Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco midway through his rookie season and helped rally the Ravens to their first postseason appearance in four years. Jackson’s athleticism was off the charts, but questions persisted about his passing despite some encouraging flashes playing in an offense that hadn’t been built around his special talents. His rookie campaign ended with a poor performance in a playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers that garnered some boos from his home crowd, but Jackson vowed to teammates he’d improve.

The harshest claims that Jackson was a running back masquerading as a signal-caller were absurd, but that’s not to say many saw the 22-year-old as an MVP candidate in his second season either. At least one Vegas oddsmaker gave unproven quarterbacks such as Baker Mayfield, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Mitch Trubisky better MVP odds entering 2019. Improvement in Jackson appeared evident from the early days of training camp, but we wouldn’t have to wait long to see just how much better he was.

The Ravens kicked off the season in Miami — just 30 miles from where Jackson grew up in Pompano Beach — and wasted little time jumping all over the hapless Dolphins with a run-heavy opening drive for a touchdown and an Earl Thomas interception that gave the ball back to Baltimore near midfield. From there, Jackson began an aerial assault that dwarfed anything he’d done in his rookie season and immediately started shifting perceptions about his passing ability and ceiling as an NFL quarterback.

On the first play of the Ravens’ second drive, the Miami defense bit on a run fake as Jackson connected with rookie Marquise Brown over the middle for a 47-yard touchdown. Just the fourth wide receiver selected in the first round in franchise history and also a South Florida native, Brown immediately showed off his game-changing speed despite an abbreviated summer in which he was still recovering from January foot surgery.

The pair hooked up again in even more impressive fashion on the next drive. Forgoing an opportunity to take off as left tackle Ronnie Stanley signaled for him to run for an easy first down to move the chains, Jackson uncorked a near-50-yard bomb that hit Brown in stride for an 83-yard touchdown, the fifth-longest pass play in Ravens regular-season history.

The young quarterback would throw three more touchdowns before being relieved by backup Robert Griffin III with the Ravens leading 52-10 to begin the final period. In just three quarters, Jackson had completed 17 of 20 passes for a team-record-tying five touchdowns, 324 yards, and a perfect 158.3 passer rating, the first in franchise history. The game was not only the best of his young career, but Jackson had put forth the best statistical performance ever by a Ravens quarterback.

It was all “not bad for a running back” as Jackson quipped after a game in which he ran only three times for six yards, one of those attempts being a kneel to end the first half.

Doubters still noted the Dolphins being one of the NFL’s worst teams, but Jackson proved the performance was far from a fluke as he’d throw five touchdown passes in a contest twice more, post another perfect single-game passer rating, and lead the league with 36 touchdown passes to lead a record-setting offense and the best regular-season team in Ravens history at 14-2. He would become just the second unanimous AP NFL MVP, the second youngest behind only Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown to win the award, and the first Raven to earn the honor.

And, oh yeah, his 1,206 rushing yards broke the NFL single-year record for a quarterback, making his tiny Week 1 running output an amusing footnote in a historic season.

Of course, there would be other memorable moments from Jackson that season such as his fourth-down touchdown run in Seattle, his incredible spin and 47-yard touchdown scamper in Cincinnati, and his Monday Night Football performance in Los Angeles, but what he did in that season opener made his harshest critics look foolish and prompted so many to fully realize just how special he could be.

“He’s definitely better. He’s worked really hard,” head coach John Harbaugh said after the 59-10 demolition. “I think he’s only going to continue to improve because he wants to work at it. He was a rookie last year. He didn’t practice much throughout the course of the year. So, he’s had a chance to be with the No. 1 offense on a daily basis, and he did a great job with it.

“Again, this is just a start. This is just one game.”

Just a start and just one game indeed.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts in early part of June

Posted on 04 June 2020 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens moving into the final weeks of virtual workouts and coaches on the verge of returning to the team facility in Owings Mills, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Steve Bisciotti’s latest of many donations in a difficult year was $1 million for a group of former and current Ravens to distribute to social justice reform efforts. Some have fairly noted the organization not signing Colin Kaepernick three years ago, but actions accompanying team-released statements are what’s needed now.

2. As they did with Terrell Suggs in 2008, the Ravens working out a compromise with Matthew Judon for his franchise tag tender always made sense. What doesn’t make sense is the NFL still using generic position labels like “linebacker” and “offensive lineman” in this system.

3. Ronnie Stanley made no reference to becoming the league’s highest-paid left tackle, but he wants “to get paid my value and what I’m worth” and expressed happiness for Laremy Tunsil’s record contract. Why wouldn’t he expect at least as much as what Houston is paying another 2016 draftee?

4. With uncertainty surrounding the season and how that could hurt the salary cap in the next year or two if fans can’t attend games or the schedule is condensed, teams are seemingly in no rush to do extensions right now. Tagging Stanley next March would be a no-brainer anyway.

5. I’ve always believed way too much is made of player-organized offseason workouts, but seeing clips of Lamar Jackson throw to some teammates in South Florida is another step toward some sports normalcy. I’m all for that.

6. The NFL requiring teams to stay at home facilities for training camp was hardly surprising, but you now wonder if we’ve seen the last of off-site camps, which were already disappearing rapidly. The 2011 lockout was the dagger for the Ravens training in Westminster.

7. New Carolina coach Matt Rhule revealed Wednesday that the Panthers were set to have joint practices with the Ravens in Owings Mills before the third preseason game until the pandemic erased those plans. More of these sessions still feel like the future for summer preparations.

8. Bradley Bozeman went from being perceived by many as the weak link who needed to be replaced early last season to someone already counted as a 2020 starter at either guard or center by his head coach. Of course, some continuity inside is critical with Marshal Yanda now retired.

9. In revealing Chuck Clark would likely continue to relay the calls in the defensive huddle and wear the “green-dot” helmet, John Harbaugh said, “He’s bold, he’s brilliant, and he’s brief.” Few Ravens have been praised for their football intellect like Clark in recent years.

10. I certainly would have endorsed the Ravens adding an elite talent like DeAndre Hopkins, but there’s something to be said for continuity at wide receiver while adding rookies Devin Duvernay and James Proche to the mix. A revolving door of veterans makes it difficult for a passing game to grow.

11. In handling great expectations for the upcoming season, Harbaugh said, “We’re going to be everyone’s most important game.” I can’t wait to see what Greg Roman comes up with to counter 2020 opponents who’ve been brainstorming all offseason to try to slow Jackson and this offense.

12. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my top 25 Ravens regular-season moments countdown as much as I’ve liked putting it together. It’s been a fun trip down memory lane at a time when many of us need that, and we still have quite a few to go.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts as virtual spring workouts continue

Posted on 27 May 2020 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens and the NFL now in the early stages of the virtual offseason workout program, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. After Gov. Larry Hogan gave permission, the organization entered “Phase I” for the opening of the Owings Mills facility, which permits returnees from the equipment crew, football video group, and the personnel department. Coaches and players still aren’t allowed in the building, but it’s a step in the right direction.

2. Those restrictions won’t prevent Baltimore players from working out together in South Florida as Lamar Jackson will hold informal sessions next week. The reigning MVP’s recent workouts with Marquise Brown highlighted on social media must have served as motivation for other teammates.

3. It’s been far from an ideal spring for players to keep in shape and prepare for the season, but the creativity has been fun to watch from afar such as the below example from Marlon Humphrey. I’ll be curious to see what technological and workout innovations stick beyond the pandemic.

4. Miles Boykin expressing confidence that he’ll “be able to play faster” in his second year reflects the steep challenge awaiting current rookies without a normal spring. Studying the playbook and virtual classroom work simply can’t replicate the challenging on-field application of concepts.

5. Ed Reed was the latest legend to speak with players virtually with Boykin describing his message as, “Take care of business — whatever it is.” The Hall of Famer discussed various topics, from finances and watching film to recovery and even locker room cleanliness. Reed remains one of a kind.

6. As Bill Belichick mentioned during the NFL 100 all-time team unveiling, Reed may have been the greatest punt blocker of all time, a cue rookies wanting to make a first-year impact should take. He was an absolute force on special teams before injuries eventually took him away from that realm.

7. Deep passing accuracy is still mentioned as a relative weakness for Jackson, but separate studies put him 16th (Pro Football Focus) and 12th (Football Outsiders) last season. With Brown and Boykin entering their second season, Jackson taking another step in the vertical game seems quite plausible.

8. Jamal Adams is a heck of a talent and drew trade interest from Baltimore last fall, but surrendering early draft picks and committing another market-setting contract to the secondary on top of the lucrative in-house extensions already on the horizon would make me take serious pause. You can’t pay everybody.

9. Speaking of safeties, this PFF piece on the three-safety defense in college is something to remember with the Ravens’ reputation for being ahead of the curve with innovations. Wink Martindale frequently used three safeties down the stretch last year, but not with the same principles as these college teams.

10. John Harbaugh was tied for 11th with 25-1 opening odds to win 2020 AP Coach of the Year, according to BetOnline. Dramatic improvement from the previous year usually prompts strong support for this award, so tangibly improving on a 14-2 regular season for him to repeat feels very unlikely.

11. As I get older, I more and more disagree with criticism for aging players who continue well past their prime. If they’re still competent enough in at least one team’s eyes, why walk away to appease anyone who isn’t their family? That goes for Joe Flacco, Terrell Suggs, or anyone.

12. There aren’t many stadiums where the Ravens haven’t won a game as they prepare for their 25th season in Baltimore, but they’ll have a chance to secure their first victories at Philadelphia and Indianapolis this fall. Of course, a road game could be quite different from what we’re used to.

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Ravens regular-season moment No. 17: “Our backs were against the wall”

Posted on 22 May 2020 by Luke Jones

Check out the No. 18 regular-season moment in Ravens history HERE.

The Ravens hadn’t won a truly critical December game in a very long time.

After missing the playoffs in each of the previous three years, Baltimore was a team in transition as rookie first-round quarterback Lamar Jackson had replaced the injured Joe Flacco during the Week 10 bye. Many assumed that makeover would continue with a new head coach as rumors had swirled about John Harbaugh and the organization likely parting ways at the end of the season.

Jackson was still another offseason of development away from blossoming into the league MVP, but his presence had revitalized a stagnant rushing attack and breathed new life into the Ravens, who had won four of five coming out of the bye week to climb back into the playoff race. The revamped ball-control offense had better complemented a defense that dominated down the stretch and finished first in the NFL in total yards allowed, second in points allowed, and third in defensive efficiency.

But a Week 16 showdown with the red-hot Los Angeles Chargers — who were coming off extra rest after an impressive Thursday road win over AFC-leading Kansas City the week before — was the kind of test the Ravens simply hadn’t passed in recent years. Memories of the Christmas loss in Pittsburgh two years earlier and the fourth-and-12 choke against Cincinnati in the 2017 finale were too strong for most to believe Baltimore would beat one of the NFL’s elite, especially on the road.

The plot felt all too familiar as the Ravens dominated the first half statistically, but they led only 6-3 at halftime after going 0-for-3 inside the red zone. Jackson’s beautiful 68-yard touchdown pass to fellow rookie Mark Andrews and a Justin Tucker 56-yard field goal gave the Ravens a 16-10 lead in the third quarter, but the offense then stalled with three straight three-and-outs, continuing to put great pressure on a Baltimore defense that had bullied eight-time Pro Bowl quarterback Philip Rivers and one of the league’s best offenses all night.

In the post-Super Bowl XLVII era, Ravens defenses had remained strong statistically, but a reputation for faltering at critical moments was impossible to overlook. Even two weeks earlier, Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs had pulled off a miraculous fourth-down conversion to force overtime and deny Baltimore an upset bid at Arrowhead Stadium.

That’s why Ravens fans couldn’t help but feel uneasy when Sam Koch’s punt from his own end zone was returned 24 yards by Desmond King to the Baltimore 39 with three minutes remaining. Not only could Rivers and the Chargers take the lead with a touchdown, but they had a short field to do it.

Someone would have to make a play for the Ravens to keep strong playoff hopes alive.

A holding penalty pushed Los Angeles back before Rivers completed a first-and-20 throw over the middle to eight-time Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates, who fought for more yardage as cornerback Brandon Carr wrapped him up. Linebacker Patrick Onwuasor arrived a moment later to punch out the football, and slot cornerback Tavon Young scooped it up and sprinted 62 yards for a touchdown.

Game over.

The defense had closed a terrific performance, and the Ravens had secured their biggest December victory in years. And with Pittsburgh losing at New Orleans the following day, Baltimore needed only a Week 17 win to secure its first AFC North championship since 2012.

The Chargers would exact their revenge in a wild-card round rematch at M&T Bank Stadium two weeks later, but the Ravens had finally broken through after not being quite good enough for too long. The Week 16 win brought Jackson’s first 200-yard passing performance as a pro, the defense’s ability to finish, and validation for the previous night’s announcement that Harbaugh would return in 2019 with a new contract extension to continue to lead a new era for the Ravens.

“Once again, our backs were against the wall,” Harbaugh said to his players in the locker room after the 22-10 victory. “Nobody thought we’d come out here and win. Except who? Us.”

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