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Twelve Ravens thoughts ahead of Super Bowl LIV

Posted on 23 January 2020 by Luke Jones

With a number of Ravens players and coaches at the Pro Bowl this week and the organization shifting into offseason mode, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The disappointment of an early playoff exit remains, but seeing Lamar Jackson interact with young fans and other players in Orlando is a reminder of how special this season was for the MVP quarterback. Even if it is just the Pro Bowl, the 23-year-old having that stage is pretty great.

2. Six weeks ago, Terrell Suggs was playing out the string for a last-place team and his former team was the clear Super Bowl favorite. The 37-year-old being the one to play for an NFL championship next week is your latest reminder that sports are weird sometimes.

3. After rushing for 297 yards and one touchdown from 2015-18, Raheem Mostert ran for 220 yards and four touchdowns in the NFC Championship game. There’s no need for an indictment of the Ravens or the five other teams with which the 27-year-old played before San Francisco to appreciate this story.

4. Eric DeCosta must prepare for life without Marshal Yanda, but the Ravens shouldn’t pressure the eight-time Pro Bowl guard into a decision anytime soon. Jonathan Ogden didn’t make his final call on retirement until June. You can always make room for an elite player’s return.

5. Job situations are fluid this time of year, but the coaching staff remaining intact is surprising. That really speaks to the working environment created by John Harbaugh and how the organization has taken care of its assistants.

6. I see no reason why Matthew Judon wouldn’t hit the market, but I’m curious how Baltimore’s need at outside linebacker and Za’Darius Smith’s performance in Green Bay might impact Judon’s valuation. Yes, we’ll hear “right player, right price,” but that’s always a moving target involving many variables.

7. Skepticism remains when it comes to wide receiver, but the goal should be an impact addition to help this offense play off schedule like it was forced to do in the playoff loss. Whether that’s a veteran or someone from a deep wide receiver draft class remains to be seen.

8. After finishing sixth or better for seven straight seasons in Rick Gosselin’s renowned special teams rankings, Baltimore fell to 27th. Football Outsiders ranked the Ravens 10th in special-teams efficiency and 24th in weighted efficiency, reflecting late-season struggles. There’s some work to do in that phase this offseason.

9. Harbaugh said the Ravens had their “best year” in terms of injuries, which is debatable after a really healthy 2018. Credit goes to their efforts revamping their strength, conditioning, and nutrition programs, but luck is also a factor, which picks at the wound of a 14-2 team not advancing further.

10. Nearly $30 million in salary cap space prompts much discussion about free agents, but extending Ronnie Stanley should be a top priority with Marlon Humphrey on deck. A new Jackson contract could come as soon as next year. Outside additions are great, but keeping this core together is paramount.

11. Harbaugh said he’d probably go the other way handling Week 17 if Baltimore is back in that spot. Correlation doesn’t imply causation. Rust was a possible factor, but Jackson taking the shots Pittsburgh gave Robert Griffin III and getting hurt in a meaningless game would have definitely been a factor.

12. Asked about any perception that Tennessee had solved his offense, Harbaugh said, “If you think anybody has the answer in football, just wait until the next week and you’ll find out.” The Ravens may not go 14-2 again or break records in 2020, but the future remains very promising.

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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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Yanda “to think about things” regarding future with Ravens

Posted on 17 January 2020 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judon’s free agency

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

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

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

Offensive assistants staying put

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

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

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

Pro Bowl plans

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

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

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

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Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry (22) runs against the Baltimore Ravens during the first half an NFL divisional playoff football game, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following playoff loss to Tennessee

Posted on 14 January 2020 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens seeing their season come to an end in a shocking 28-12 divisional-round playoff loss to Tennessee, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Those wondering how Baltimore would handle playing from behind couldn’t have liked the answer, but perception wasn’t helped watching Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City erase a 24-point deficit like it was nothing and Russell Wilson nearly bringing Seattle back at Lambeau. Improvement there is the next step for this offense.

2. Lamar Jackson was the first to say he didn’t play very well, but drops were a big problem as you could point to as many as seven passes that should have been caught — even if some weren’t on target. Another impactful wide receiver would be ideal in Jackson’s continued development.

3. I’m not sure why Gus Edwards received so few touches with Mark Ingram not 100 percent, but the last drive of the first half (13 dropbacks) and the fourth quarter (27 dropbacks) really skewed the run-pass ratio on which many are dwelling. Still, Greg Roman seemed out of sorts.

4. Committing to run is tough when gaining 38 yards on the first 22 first-down plays. However, as Twitter user @Yoshi2052 noted, there wasn’t a designed run on first down after the 9:03 mark of the second quarter. Baltimore netted one yard or worse on 24 of 40 first-down snaps. Yuck.

5. Tennessee’s 217 rushing yards were the fourth most allowed by the Ravens in team history. A run defense ranking 21st in yards per carry allowed (a franchise-worst 4.4) and 19th in efficiency benefited from playing with big leads all season. Upgrades at inside and outside linebacker are in order.

6. It was a tough time for Pro Bowl outside linebacker Matthew Judon to have one of his worst games. His missed tackle on a Ryan Tannehill third-down scramble extended the Titans’ first touchdown drive, and he missed another on Derrick Henry’s soul-crushing 66-yard run in the third quarter.

7. Sorry, I’m not going to knock John Harbaugh for doing what he did all year on fourth-and-1 situations after the Ravens went 8-for-8 in that department during the regular season. You’re going to bust sometimes at the Blackjack table, and it just happened at the worst possible time — twice.

8. The Titans were set up on a short field for three of their four touchdowns, but the Baltimore defense offered no sudden-change impact or resistance inside the red zone. The Ravens just couldn’t make the game-changing play on either side of the ball all night.

9. Few Ravens players stood out against Tennessee in positive ways, but Marquise Brown reminded once again why his future is bright with an offseason to now get his surgically-repaired foot 100 percent. His slight stature will always be a concern, but some unique ability is there.

10. Special teams offered no favors with a Brynden Trawick hold and a silly De’Anthony Thomas foul for blocking after calling a fair catch backing Baltimore up on second-quarter drives. The latter may have been the difference in needing to settle for a field goal before halftime.

11. After dominating with a 7-1 record and an incredible plus-159 point differential on the road this season, the Ravens fell to 3-4 in all-time home playoff games. They obviously earned the top seed with a 14-2 record, but home-field advantage probably wasn’t all that critical for this particular team.

12. While some opine about rust, is it possible blowing out Pittsburgh without Jackson in Week 17 left the Ravens feeling a bit too invincible going into the bye week as the world sang how great they were? It’s all conjecture, of course. The best team doesn’t always win. 

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Ravens must endure “hard truth” until back on January stage

Posted on 13 January 2020 by Luke Jones

A few Ravens players described it as a nightmare, hoping to wake up Saturday morning with a mulligan.

Matthew Judon compared it to a car crash.

Lamar Jackson said the offense got “too excited” and out of its element “a little too fast” after falling behind early.

There was much blame to go around and plenty of theories why top-seeded Baltimore suffered a stunning 28-12 loss to Tennessee in the divisional round, but Marlon Humphrey’s words stung most for a team that had gone an NFL-best 14-2, won 12 straight games, and rewritten both the franchise and league record books during a magical regular season.

“We’ve been here two years in a row, and we’ve lost,” said Humphrey, citing last January’s wild-card home defeat to the Los Angeles Chargers. “I think you’ve got to look yourself in the mirror, and I think this team right now, its identity is to get in the playoffs and choke. It is what it is. That’s just the hard truth.”

The “choke” word is harsh, but it comes from someone who won a national championship and finished as runner-up in his other collegiate season at Alabama, where the standard is college football’s highest. When you dominate the NFL for three months before seeing your Super Bowl aspirations crumble in three hours against a 9-7 team in your home stadium, there are few scenarios in the sporting realm where the term is more appropriate. Setting numerous records and finishing with the NFL’s highest point differential (plus-249) since 16-0 New England in 2007, the Ravens indeed fell short of the expectations they’d created for themselves, let alone what media or fans anticipated going into the playoffs.

No matter how disappointing Saturday night was in Baltimore, the future remains as bright for the Ravens as any team in football. Jackson was far from his best — as you could say about virtually every other Raven against the Titans — but the dynamic 23-year-old will be the NFL MVP and leads a young, innovative, and record-setting offense with virtually everyone under contract for 2020. Barring something completely unforeseen, coordinators Greg Roman and Wink Martindale will both return after failing to land head coaching jobs elsewhere. And thanks to having a franchise quarterback entering the third season of his rookie contract, general manager Eric DeCosta begins the offseason with over $30 million in salary cap space before any potential maneuvering to clear more room.

But there are no guarantees, which makes laying the divisional-round egg that much more difficult to accept. Despite how easy the Ravens made it look all season, so much has to go remarkably well to go 14-2 and secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, some of it out of a team’s control. That’s not to say such a sterling record or the top seed is a requisite for a championship — the 2000 and 2012 teams send their regards — but luck plays a bigger part in a Super Bowl run than most want to admit. A first-round bye and playing at home is like being able to hedge your bets, much like John Harbaugh did by wisely not risking injury to Jackson and the handful of other key starters in the regular-season finale against Pittsburgh.

Optimists will frame this as part of Baltimore’s journey to its next Super Bowl title, recalling the heartbreak of the 2011 AFC Championship game and how the 2012 Ravens would go on to finish the job despite not achieving the same level of regular-season success. On the other hand, the 2006 Ravens lost at home to Indianapolis in the divisional round and regressed from a then-franchise-best 13-3 record to a 5-11 injury-plagued disaster in 2007.

Of the previous five NFL teams to secure a No. 1 seed and lose in the divisional round, two got to the Super Bowl the next year and lost, one fell in the divisional round again, another lost a wild-card playoff game, and the most recent — the 2016 Dallas Cowboys — failed to even reach the postseason the following year. The Denver Broncos (2012) would wait three years to win a Super Bowl while the Patriots (2010) wouldn’t win their next NFL championship for four more years after losing in the divisional round as No. 1 seeds. Those other three are still waiting for that redemptive Super Bowl title years later.

The Ravens indeed let a massive opportunity slip through their fingers, no matter how promising the future looks on paper.

The next 12 months will be a grind, for everyone from DeCosta and Harbaugh to Jackson and every other returning Raven who left the field in disappointment Saturday night. There are probably parallels you can draw with the infamous Super Bowl loser hangover except there being no January success from which Baltimore can draw after so much regular-season success.

Compartmentalizing and not giving into any thoughts of complacency or obsession about the postseason will be an unspoken challenge in the coming days, weeks, and months. As Harbaugh likes to say, you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse, a message he’ll surely convey over and over to his players from the moment they return to the team facility for the start of the offseason training program in April.

Fair or not, every shred of success next season will be met by a detractor saying, “That’s great, but what about January?” And there’s little the Ravens will really be able to say or do about that until next postseason — if all goes according to plan, of course.

Saturday’s defeat shouldn’t ruin what was the best regular season in franchise history. But much like the 2006 team that previously held that distinction and was much fun in its own right, these Ravens disappointed mightily in the postseason, the time when legacies are defined and feelings entrenched.

That’s just the hard truth.

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Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) hands off to running back Mark Ingram (21) during the first half of an NFL football game against the Houston Texans, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

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Ravens-Titans: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 11 January 2020 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens have waited eight years since their last divisional-round home playoff game.

A win against Tennessee brings the AFC Championship game to Baltimore for the first time in 49 years and the first time in franchise history as Lamar Jackson and the top-seeded Ravens try to extend their franchise-record winning streak to 13 in a row.

Despite logging just one limited practice this week in his return from a left calf injury sustained three days before Christmas, Pro Bowl running back Mark Ingram is active and will play in Baltimore’s playoff opener. Unlike many players regarded as game-time decisions over the course of the season, Ingram didn’t go through an on-field workout prior to the inactive list being announced. Of course, top backup Gus Edwards and rookie Justice Hill are available in the event of Ingram suffering a setback.

As expected, tight end Mark Andrews is active despite being listed as questionable and being limited in practices throughout the week. He went through his normal pre-game workout with the other Ravens tight ends two hours prior to kickoff, but how explosive he looks will be worth monitoring as an ankle injury sustained in Week 16 has lingered. Andrews missed the regular-season finale against Pittsburgh and practiced with a wrap on his right ankle throughout the practice week.

Defensive back and special-teams contributor Jordan Richards was a healthy scratch for the first time since being signed in late October as the Ravens elected to activate reserve defensive tackle Justin Ellis. Cornerbacks Anthony Averett and Iman Marshall were also inactives with the Titans featuring NFL rushing champion Derrick Henry and the league’s third-ranked run offense.

Signed earlier this week to the 53-man roster, veteran offensive tackle Andre Smith was also deactivated.

There were no surprises among the Tennessee inactives after standout linebacker Jayon Brown (shoulder) and wide receiver Adam Humphries (ankle) were already ruled out on Thursday.

Saturday’s referee is Bill Vinovich.

According to Weather.com, the Saturday forecast calls for cloudy skies and unseasonably warm temperatures in the mid-60s with winds 10 to 20 miles per hour and only a slight chance of precipitation during the game. Not bad for January football in Baltimore.

The Ravens are wearing their purple jerseys with white pants for their playoff opener while Tennessee dons white tops with navy blue pants.

Former Baltimore quarterback and Super Bowl XXXV champion Trent Dilfer was recognized as the Ravens’ “Legend of the Game” prior to kickoff and offered the following gem on his way to the stadium:

Saturday marks the fourth postseason meeting between these teams with the Ravens holding a 2-1 advantage. However, the road team won each of the previous three meetings with the Titans falling to Baltimore in 2000 and 2008 despite being the top seed in the AFC. These old AFC Central rivals are tied 10-10 in their regular-season series history with the Ravens winning the most recent meeting last season.

Below are Saturday night’s inactives:

BALTIMORE
QB Trace McSorley
WR Jaleel Scott
DB Jordan Richards
CB Anthony Averett
CB Iman Marshall
G Ben Powers
OT Andre Smith

TENNESSEE
LB Jayon Brown
WR Adam Humphries
WR Rashard Davis
WR Cody Hollister
OL Kevin Pamphile
DT Joey Ivie
DT Isaiah Mack

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Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) celebrates his touchdown run against the New England Patriots with offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley (79) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

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Ravens-Titans: Five predictions for Saturday night

Posted on 10 January 2020 by Luke Jones

There was a time when Ravens-Titans was the best rivalry in the NFL.

Divisional realignment all too quickly separated these old AFC Central foes, but Baltimore and Tennessee met three times in the playoffs in a nine-year period with each of the encounters memorable. We all remember Ray Lewis, Eddie George, Ed Reed, and Steve McNair, but even lesser names such as Anthony Mitchell and Gary Anderson elicit a reaction from both fan bases to this day.

We’ll see if Saturday’s divisional-round meeting provides the next instant classic or simply serves as another checkpoint for 14-2 Baltimore’s Super Bowl aspirations after a 12-game winning streak to close the regular season. An upset win would send the Titans to their first AFC Championship appearance since the 2002 season while the Ravens aim to advance to the conference championship for the first time since 2012 and host the AFC title game for the first time in franchise history.

It’s time to go on the record as these teams meet for the fourth time in the postseason with Baltimore holding a 2-1 edge and the road team prevailing each time. The Ravens and Titans are tied 10-10 in their regular-season history with Harbaugh’s team winning the most recent meeting, a 21-0 shutout in Nashville last season.

Below are five predictions for Saturday night:

1. Lamar Jackson will become the fourth quarterback in NFL history to rush for 100 yards in a playoff game. Trying to predict what happens with Mark Ingram and his lingering calf injury is tricky, but there’s no questioning Jackson’s involvement in the ground game after he carried the ball 11 or more times in eight games this year. Titans coach Mike Vrabel quipped the best way to slow Jackson is to tie his shoelaces together, but it’ll be interesting to see how the 23-year-old comes out of the gate in the biggest game of his life after three weeks off. It makes sense for Greg Roman to throw in an extra designed run or two early on to help his young quarterback settle in, but Jackson will play like the MVP.

2. Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown will each score for the Titans. The Tennessee offense isn’t as diverse as Baltimore, but it isn’t devoid of unique talent with the 2019 rushing champion and a 1,000-yard rookie receiver who finished second in the NFL in yards per catch (20.2). With the Ravens using nickel and dime packages so often to play to their strength in the secondary, it’ll be interesting to see how Wink Martindale balances the need to contain Henry while not allowing Brown or Corey Davis to get loose for Ryan Tannehill to take play-action shots. The Ravens rank 21st in yards per carry allowed and 19th in run defense efficiency, but an early lead would really neutralize Henry’s impact.

3. Marcus Peters will intercept a pass to stall a Tennessee drive. In a similar way to how Tannehill helped transform a stagnant Titans offense into one of the NFL’s best units, the acquisition of the ball-hawking Peters was the biggest factor in the dramatic improvement of the Ravens defense from the first month of the season. With Peters and a healthy Jimmy Smith on the field, Baltimore allowed 200 net passing yards only once in the final eight regular-season games. The Titans rank first in the NFL in red-zone touchdown percentage, but the Ravens are third in red-zone defense, meaning something will have to give. Three of Tannehill’s six interceptions this season came inside the red zone.

4. Hayden Hurst and Nick Boyle will catch red-zone touchdowns. Tennessee will be without top cover linebacker Jayon Brown due to a shoulder injury suffered last week, which is bad news for a defense that’s already had its problems covering tight ends this season. However, the effectiveness of Pro Bowl selection Mark Andrews will be something to monitor as he continued to be limited with a right ankle injury this week and hasn’t appeared to move very well during practice time open to reporters. Even if Andrews isn’t 100 percent, Hurst and Boyle are very capable of making plays in the passing game and could take advantage of the Titans devoting more attention to the top option at the position.

5. A fast start will neutralize Tennessee’s game plan and propel the Ravens to a 30-16 win. As I wrote earlier this week, Baltimore starting strong could be the difference between a comfortable blowout and a game that goes down to the wire with the way the Titans like to play and their confidence level after a big win in New England last week. You always wonder how a team will respond after extensive time between meaningful games, but the culture created by an accomplished head coach should alleviate concerns of potential rust or coming out flat. The Ravens are the best team in the NFL, have the league’s MVP, and enjoy home-field advantage while Tannehill and the Titans have been a good story in the second half of the season that will come to its conclusion on Saturday night.

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Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson celebrates after throwing a touchdown pass against the Los Angeles Rams during the first half of an NFL football game Monday, Nov. 25, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

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After long layoff, top-seeded Ravens starting fast would ease biggest concerns

Posted on 09 January 2020 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Lamar Jackson says “it feels like it’s been forever” since he last played in a game, a full 20 days by the time the Ravens kick off their playoff opener against Tennessee on Saturday.

Rest and extra time to prepare are clear advantages for a team already superior in virtually every meaningful way to the Titans, who became the first team since the 2009 Ravens to beat New England in the wild-card round last weekend. But that’s an accomplishment and a path that shouldn’t be taken lightly, especially by an organization that relished an underdog road journey to two Super Bowl championships and a number of other playoff victories over the last two decades.

While the top-seeded Ravens focused on themselves and could prepare for the big picture over the better part of these last few weeks, the Titans have been busy fighting for their January lives with a Week 17 win at Houston to clinch a wild-card spot and a 20-13 victory over the Patriots in Foxborough just to get to Baltimore this weekend. If the 14-2 Ravens are slow to flip the switch in their first meaningful game since Week 16, that urgency is something that can work in No. 6 seed Tennessee’s favor.

“You just keep playing. You keep that edge. You are kind of going week to week,” said head coach John Harbaugh, whose Ravens knocked off a heavily favored Denver team on the way to a Super Bowl title seven years ago. “There’s not time to breathe or think about anything. I absolutely think that can be a plus. It has been for us in the past. We’ve been pretty good on the road over the years in the playoff times historically. There’s certainly something to that, and we’re well aware of that on the other side of it.”

That’s why the Ravens starting fast is more important than the typical way we discuss that cliche ahead of a big game. In fact, nearly every potential concern or pitfall discussed this week would be mitigated by the NFL’s best offense scoring on its first couple drives and one of the league’s top defenses making life difficult for the Tennessee offense early on. Such a beginning would make a blowout victory far more likely than the chance of an upset at M&T Bank Stadium.

Any concern of the Ravens being rusty or losing their edge after such a long layoff would be swatted away with a 10-0 lead before fans finish their first in-game beverage. That’s hardly out of the question considering Baltimore scored on its first two drives in eight of its 16 regular-season games while the Titans did that just once — Week 17 against a Texans team resting multiple starters — and managed to score on their opening drive only three times in the regular season before last Saturday’s playoff win.

But a slower start by the Ravens — one like we saw in Cleveland three weeks ago, for example — would give Tennessee the opportunity to carry over some of its wild-card weekend mojo and execute its optimal game plan. While quarterback Ryan Tannehill and the Titans rode NFL rushing champion Derrick Henry to an ordinary two-touchdown output against the Patriots, their offense ranks first in average yards per play, second in expected points added per play, and second in percentage of drives ending in touchdowns since Tannehill took over at quarterback in Week 7. It was a forgettable postseason debut for Tannehill with just 72 passing yards, a touchdown, and an interception last Saturday, but dismissing a 136.4 passer rating using play-action fakes and 22 touchdown passes to just six interceptions in 12 regular-season games is a brazen position.

Even if you’re waiting for the former Miami quarterback to turn back into a pumpkin after surprisingly leading the NFL in passer rating, Tannehill has been excellent against the blitz, something the Ravens do more frequently than anyone. Sustainable for the long haul or not, the formula has been there for Tannehill to succeed and the Titans to score prolifically with Henry and a good offensive line keeping them on schedule and rookie wide receiver A.J. Brown emerging as a big-play threat down the stretch.

It all begins with the 6-foot-3, 247-pound Henry, whom defensive coordinator Wink Martindale compared to a video-game creation at running back that “shouldn’t be that big and be able to run like he runs.” His propensity to get to the edge and cutback on outside-zone plays is a running style that’s given the Baltimore run defense some problems this season, another reason why a fast start is so important. An early deficit puts more pressure on Tannehill and minimizes Henry’s impact, even if he does find some running room over the course of the game.

“I think when the run game gets going, that’s when the play-action shot is available because the defense is so aggressive trying to stop the run,” safety Earl Thomas said. “If we knock that out from the start, I think we’ll be fine. If Tannehill tries to pass on us, I don’t think that will go in their favor. We know they’re going to try to run the ball. But we just have to stop the run and play sound on the back end. I think that will take care of the play-action pass.”

A strong beginning would also extinguish any lingering memory of last year’s playoff disappointment, a loss that drove Jackson’s remarkable improvement in the offseason that molded him into the league’s MVP. Of course, the 23-year-old needs no validation after a historic season in which he led the NFL in touchdown passes and shattered the single-season rushing record for a quarterback, but he’s waited and prepared 12 months for this very moment. Jackson is the first to tell you that all he cares about is winning the Super Bowl, which was what he famously promised on draft night less than two years ago.

That loss to the Los Angeles Chargers was not only a catalyst for the construction of the Ravens’ “revolutionary” offense this past offseason, but it serves as a painful reminder of how quickly playoff hopes can be dashed if you’re not ready. At one point in the first quarter of that 23-17 loss, Baltimore fumbled on three straight plays from scrimmage. Such a sequence seems unfathomable for a team that has won a franchise-record 12 consecutive games and has set all kinds of records, but a sleepy beginning and a critical mistake or two at the wrong time would give the upstart Titans their chance at an upset.

We’ll find out if it’s easier said than done Saturday night, but the Ravens merely need to pick up where they left off as the NFL’s best team over the last three months. A slow start hardly means they’re doomed, of course, but Baltimore would much prefer to leave no doubt from the opening kick and crush any hopes on the Titans’ side.

“Can’t start too late. You have to attack fast,” said Jackson about last year’s playoff loss. “It doesn’t really matter what quarter it is. First or second [quarter], you have to attack. You just have to finish the game strong.

“You can’t just go into the game playing half-assed. You’ll have the same results.”

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humphrey

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Twelve Ravens thoughts on divisional playoff meeting with Tennessee

Posted on 06 January 2020 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens now knowing they’ll face Tennessee in their first home divisional playoff game in eight years, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. A talking point for John Harbaugh to his players this week will be how rare January road wins in Foxborough have been the last two decades. The Titans are the lesser team on paper, but beating New England in the playoffs garners a level of respect Baltimore shouldn’t dismiss.

2. Starting fast is a cliched key one can mention every week, but the Ravens can silence all discussion of rust or losing their edge by jumping on the Titans early. It would also remind Mike Vrabel’s team that any confidence gained from beating the Patriots will only go so far.

3. Derrick Henry led the NFL in rushing as Tennessee finished third in rushing and fifth in Football Outsiders’ run efficiency. Henry’s propensity to cut back on edge runs is a style that’s given Baltimore some issues, so I expect Wink Martindale to use more base defense and big nickel packages.

4. With Lamar Jackson turning 23 on Tuesday, I couldn’t help but ponder a connection with another 23-year-old who won MVP, led Baltimore to a world championship, and wore No. 8. The young quarterback sure followed through on a vow made at Camden Yards this past summer.

5. A three-week layoff from live-game action is one thing, but Jackson battling a stomach bug for several days last week is another variable to consider in the whole rust debate. That’s nothing a couple early designed runs or high-percentage throws can’t remedy, however.

6. Ryan Tannehill has been superb under pressure and against the blitz this season, but he’ll face a Ravens defense that blitzes more frequently than anyone in the NFL. His overall numbers are impressive, but I can’t blame you for waiting for the eighth-year quarterback to turn back into a pumpkin.

7. Baltimore allowed 200 net passing yards just once over the final eight games of the regular season despite winning all but two of those by at least 16 points. Considering how much yardage and scoring you often see in “garbage” time, that’s remarkable — and bad news for Tannehill.

8. You’d expect Dean Pees to be a topic of conversation this week, but just six members of the Ravens’ current offensive roster were with the organization when Pees was defensive coordinator. He’s as unfamiliar with Jackson and this unique system as any coordinator out there.

9. With wide receivers coach David Culley reiterating Marquise Brown isn’t fully healed from last January’s foot surgery, you hope a week off really helped the speedy rookie receiver. Brown made just one catch of 10 or more yards in five combined December games.

10. Meanwhile, fellow rookie A.J. Brown cracked the 1,000-yard receiving mark and registered 100-yard performances for the Titans in four of the last six games of the regular season. Any receiver averaging more than 20 yards per catch is someone to watch.

11. Tennessee ranked 29th in special-teams efficiency and went 8-for-18 on field goals in the process of using four different kickers this season. Justin Tucker has missed nine field goals over the last four seasons combined. Paging Al Del Greco.


(Photo by Getty Images)

12. The early forecast for Saturday night suggests rain showers and winds 10 to 15 miles per hour. Two run-first teams probably wouldn’t mind those conditions one bit, and I can’t imagine a little rain dampening the spirits of a raucous crowd either.

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jacksontitans

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Ravens to host Tennessee in divisional round next Saturday night

Posted on 05 January 2020 by Luke Jones

An old AFC Central rivalry will be renewed as the Ravens host Tennessee in the divisional round next Saturday night.

The No. 6 seed Titans upset Tom Brady and New England in a 20-13 win in Saturday’s wild-card round and will now travel to Baltimore for the fourth ever postseason meeting between the teams. Ravens coaches focused more on the Titans in their preliminary preparations during the bye week since Baltimore was already familiar with Houston and Buffalo after playing them in the second half of the regular season. Head coach John Harbaugh and his staff will resume preparations for Tennessee on Sunday with players returning to the training facility in Owings Mills on Monday.

The teams last met in Nashville in Week 6 of the 2018 season, but much has changed since that 21-0 win for the Ravens that included a franchise-record 11 sacks and just two snaps played by Lamar Jackson. That day marked the final victory of Joe Flacco’s 11-year run as Baltimore’s starting quarterback with Jackson taking the reins a month later and never looking back as he’s become the NFL MVP favorite in his second season.

The Titans have also replaced their starting quarterback since then as former second overall pick Marcus Mariota was benched earlier this year in favor of veteran Ryan Tannehill, who surprisingly led the NFL with a 117.5 passer rating in the regular season. Titans running back Derrick Henry led the league with 1,540 rushing yards this season and thrives on cutbacks off edge runs, a style that gave the Baltimore defense some problems this season.

Tennessee has emerged as the Cinderella team in the AFC after winning five of its last seven to qualify for the postseason and handing the Patriots their first loss in the wild-card round since the Ravens beat them in Foxborough in the 2009 postseason. However, former Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees will have the unenviable task of preparing his Tennessee unit for its first look at a Jackson-led offense that broke the NFL’s single-season rushing record and became the first team to average 200 yards rushing and 200 yards passing in the same year.

The teams are tied 10-10 in the all-time regular-season series, but Baltimore holds a 2-1 edge in playoff meetings taking place in 2000, 2003, and 2008. Those were all postseason classics with the road team prevailing each time, but this will be the first in which the Ravens will be the overwhelming favorite after a 14-2 regular season that included 12 consecutive wins to give them the top seed in the AFC for the first time in their 24-year history.

The Ravens-Titans rivalry was fleeting due to divisional realignment in 2002, but it was every bit as bitter as what Ravens-Steelers would become, which should add more flavor to what already figured to be a very exciting week in Baltimore.

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