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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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Ravens right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. added to Pro Bowl roster

Posted on 15 January 2020 by Luke Jones

Right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. became the record-tying 13th Ravens player to be named to this month’s Pro Bowl, replacing Oakland’s Trent Brown on the AFC roster on Wednesday.

The 2018 third-round pick from Oklahoma became the third Baltimore offensive lineman to be named to the all-star game, joining right guard Marshal Yanda and left tackle Ronnie Stanley. Pro Football Focus graded Brown as the 25th-best offensive tackle in the NFL and the ninth best in pass blocking this season. The 23-year-old started all 16 games in the regular season as the Ravens set a new NFL record for rushing yards on their way to an NFL-best 14-2 record.

Baltimore’s 13 Pro Bowl players tie the NFL record set by the 2007 Dallas Cowboys, who had 11 original selections and two injury replacements for the game.

Brown’s addition came with the news that Ravens cornerback Marcus Peters would drop out of the Pro Bowl and be replaced by Pittsburgh cornerback Joe Haden. The 27-year-old Peters was named to his third Pro Bowl in his five NFL seasons and recently signed a three-year, $42 million contract extension with Baltimore despite being acquired from the Los Angeles Rams just three months ago.

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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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Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Devlin Hodges (6) tries to throw a pass from his team's end zone as Baltimore Ravens cornerback Brandon Carr (39) grabs him during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, in Baltimore. Hodges was penalized for an intentional grounding penalty and the Ravens were given two points on a the safety. The Ravens won 28-10. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

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Twelve Ravens thoughts during playoff bye week

Posted on 01 January 2020 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens enjoying the bye week after a franchise-best 14-2 record and securing the AFC’s top seed for the first time in their 24-year history, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Eliminating Pittsburgh and extending the franchise-record winning streak to 12 games were fun accomplishments, but escaping Week 17 without any major injuries was the real win. The Ravens haven’t stayed as healthy as last year when they had the fewest adjusted games lost in the NFL, but they’re close.

2. If you’ve wondered how much credit Greg Roman deserves for this offense, look to Sunday when the Ravens rushed for 223 yards against one of the league’s best run defenses without arguably the best rushing quarterback ever, a Pro Bowl running back, and two Pro Bowl offensive linemen. Case closed.

3. Finding the appropriate words to describe a historic season for Lamar Jackson isn’t easy, but I keep coming back to him leading the NFL in touchdown passes despite 25 quarterbacks attempting more passes and ranking sixth in rushing despite 22 players having more carries. Electrifying efficiency.

4. The Ravens failed to have a single 700-yard rusher in 2013 and 2015 and just barely had one last year, but they became just the second team in NFL history to produce three 700-yard rushers in one season, joining Carolina in 2011. Seven teams didn’t have one this season.

5. Despite making a career-low 28 field goals because of the record-setting offense, Justin Tucker scored exactly 141 points for the fourth consecutive season. His 57 extra points were 15 more than he’d ever made in a campaign. Surprising math to get to the same endpoint for the Pro Bowl kicker.

6. Brandon Carr is entering the final option year of his contract, but his move to safety could extend his career for another season or two. The 33-year-old remains solid in coverage and came close to three sacks as a blitzer last Sunday. His versatility and durability continue to be valuable.

7. The Ravens and Robert Griffin III weren’t thrilled with Pittsburgh repeatedly hitting the quarterback on read-option hand-offs, but you’d have to anticipate more of that against Jackson in the postseason. I can’t blame opponents for doing it as long as the hits don’t blatantly cross the line.

8. A day after signing a contract extension, Marcus Peters was the one who nixed John Harbaugh receiving a Gatorade shower, citing how the Ravens had more to accomplish. It’s still remarkable how little Eric DeCosta traded for Peters compared to what the Los Angeles Rams paid for Jalen Ramsey.

9. Mark Ingram’s status will continue to be monitored, but Gus Edwards besting him in yards per carry for the season (5.3 to 5.0) is a reminder that he’s a starting-caliber back. If Ingram isn’t quite ready for the divisional round, the Ravens should be fine with Edwards and Justice Hill.

10. Anthony Levine saw his season average fall from 60.0 yards per rush to 31.0 after a successful fake punt that netted two yards Sunday. The Ravens ran fakes to Levine with a 35-3 lead in Week 1 and in the fourth quarter of Week 17 with no playoff implications.

11. The Ravens finished the regular season with a plus-249 point differential, the NFL’s highest since undefeated New England in 2007 at plus-315. They’re also the seventh team in the 16-game season era to score 500 points and allow fewer than 300. Five of those first six made the Super Bowl.

12. I wasn’t surprised by Ravens fans’ cheers upon learning New England had fallen to Miami, but Kansas City becomes a bigger threat to Baltimore’s Super Bowl aspirations with a week off and playing at home in the divisional round. Jackson facing the Chiefs is the way it should be anyway.

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Ravens, Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters reach contract extension

Posted on 28 December 2019 by Luke Jones

A critical component of the remarkable in-season transformation of the Ravens defense will be sticking around beyond the 2019 season.

Just 2 1/2 months after being acquired from the Los Angeles Rams, Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters has agreed to a three-year contract extension worth $42 million and $32 million guaranteed, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. The deal runs through the 2022 season and makes Peters one of the eight highest-paid cornerbacks in the NFL in terms of both average annual value and guaranteed money, according to OverTheCap.com.

With the Ravens having endured numerous injuries in the secondary and ranking 25th in pass defense after Week 6, general manager Eric DeCosta sent disappointing inside linebacker Kenny Young and a 2020 fifth-round pick to the Rams for Peters. The move lacked the fanfare — or long-term risk — of Los Angeles’ decision to then trade two first-round picks and a fourth-round selection to Jacksonville for disgruntled Pro Bowl cornerback Jalen Ramsey, but Peters’ arrival brought immediate dividends for Baltimore, who has climbed all the way to seventh in pass defense entering Week 17.

Despite logging only two practices with the Ravens and flying across the country twice in less than three days, the 26-year-old returned a Russell Wilson pass 67 yards for a touchdown in his Ravens debut, a 30-16 win at Seattle. Peters also returned a pick for a score against Cincinnati in Week 10, giving him a league-leading three interceptions returned for touchdowns this season. The outspoken cornerback also preserved a 24-17 win in Buffalo with a fourth-down pass breakup in the final minutes of Week 14.

Pro Football Focus has graded Peters as the third-best cornerback in the NFL this season, an effort that resulted in the 6-foot, 197-pound defensive back being named to his third Pro Bowl earlier this month.

The financial commitment to Peters is the latest example of DeCosta and the Ravens subscribing to the analytics-minded approach of prioritizing coverage on the back end above all else defensively. Even with veteran Jimmy Smith scheduled to become a free agent, Baltimore has the cornerback trio of Peters, fellow Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey, and slot man Tavon Young under control through at least the 2021 season while Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas is signed through 2022 and fellow starting safety Chuck Clark is under contract through next season.

Having a reputation as a polarizing player both on and off the field prior to his arrival, Peters has been labeled a cornerback “savant” by defensive coordinator Wink Martindale and has fit in well with a defense that’s been one of the NFL’s best since the first month of the season.

Kansas City’s 2015 first-round pick out of Washington, Peters has the most interceptions (27) in the NFL by a wide margin over the last five seasons and is tied for fourth in the league with five interceptions this season. He’s also collected 52 tackles and 14 pass breakups in 15 games split between the Ravens and Rams in 2019.

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Baltimore Ravens tight end Mark Andrews (89) celebrates his touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers with teammate Mark Ingram (21) in the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019, in Baltimore, Md. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

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Ravens’ additional plans for regular-season finale remain unclear

Posted on 27 December 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — John Harbaugh said earlier in the week that the Ravens would make further decisions regarding playing time for the regular-season finale, but the head coach revealed no new plans Friday.

Running back Mark Ingram (calf) was officially declared out on the final injury report for Sunday’s meeting with Pittsburgh, but the veteran was already part of Harbaugh’s announced list including quarterback Lamar Jackson, safety Earl Thomas, right guard Marshal Yanda, and defensive tackle Brandon Williams that would sit out against the Steelers. Having already locked up the No. 1 seed in the AFC, the Ravens seem likely to rest at least a few more key starters, but those decisions could be impacted by the availability of four others officially listed as questionable on the Week 17 injury report.

Teams must deactivate seven players on game days, but Baltimore could still rest additional starters or at least limit their playing time. In the 2012 regular-season finale in Cincinnati, the Ravens deactivated seven players, held out another injured player, and limited 10 other starters or key contributors to 16 or fewer snaps after wrapping up the AFC North championship the previous week. That’s the closest situation to this one that Harbaugh has faced in his 12 seasons as head coach.

“The injury things in terms of who can make it to the game and who can’t, we’ll factor that in,” Harbaugh said. “We’ll just have to factor all of that in between now and Sunday. I don’t really have any announcements to make beyond those guys [ruled out on Monday]. … We’ll just get to the game and see where we’re at and try to put our best team out there that we choose to have available.”

Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews (ankle) was officially listed as questionable after returning to practice on a limited basis Friday. He is just four receiving yards shy of breaking Todd Heap’s team record for most in a season by a tight end (855 in 2005), but Andrews wasn’t moving around all that much during the portion of practice open to reporters. He turned his right ankle in the fourth quarter of last Sunday’s win in Cleveland.

Cornerbacks Marcus Peters (chest) and Jimmy Smith (groin) were limited in practices this week while wide receiver Marquise Brown missed Friday’s practice with an illness, leaving them all questionable on the injury report.

Thomas didn’t practice all week and was officially designated as questionable despite Harbaugh already saying the seven-time Pro Bowl safety wouldn’t play against the Steelers.

Another situation to monitor will be the status of inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor, who left the field early in Friday’s practice after what appeared to be an animated exchange with Harbaugh. The Baltimore coach wouldn’t comment on the details of what happened beyond describing it as “an internal matter.”

After focusing on individual drills and fundamentals work early in the practice week, Jackson ran the Ravens’ scout team in Friday’s workout as backup quarterback Robert Griffin III prepared to make his first NFL start in three years. It was quite the unique situation having the league MVP favorite playing the role of Steelers quarterback Devlin Hodges in practice.

“He looked good. It was a good look,” said Harbaugh as he laughed. “He made some plays.”

Needing a win over the Ravens and a Tennessee loss to Houston to secure the No. 6 seed in the AFC, the Steelers will be without Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey (knee) and starting running back James Conner (quad), who both missed the entire week of practice. Those absences won’t help a Pittsburgh offense that’s scored fewer than 20 points in five of its last seven games.

According to Weather.com, the Sunday forecast in Baltimore calls for rain and temperatures in the mid-40s with winds light and variable and a 70-percent chance of precipitation.

Below is the final injury report for Week 17:

BALTIMORE
OUT: RB Mark Ingram (calf)
QUESTIONABLE: TE Mark Andrews (ankle), WR Marquise Brown (illness), CB Marcus Peters (chest), CB Jimmy Smith (groin), S Earl Thomas (knee/hand)

PITTSBURGH
OUT: RB James Conner (quad), C Maurkice Pouncey (knee)

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

Posted on 19 December 2019 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

Nothing more, nothing less.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yanda strengthens Canton case

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

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

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

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

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

Special teams mishaps

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

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

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

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

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Jackson headlines list of record 12 Ravens selections for Pro Bowl

Posted on 17 December 2019 by Luke Jones

An NFL-record-tying 12 Ravens players were selected to play in next month’s Pro Bowl in Orlando, but they hope to be busy preparing for a more meaningful game further down the road in Florida the following Sunday.

To no surprise, MVP favorite and NFL leading vote-getter Lamar Jackson was selected as the AFC’s starting quarterback, continuing a historic season in which he currently leads the NFL in touchdown passes (33) and has already set the league’s single-season record for rushing yards by a quarterback (1,103). Jackson, 22, is the first Ravens quarterback to be named the Pro Bowl starter and only the second in their 24-year history to be a Pro Bowl selection, joining Vinny Testaverde in 1996.

Jackson needs one more touchdown pass to surpass Testaverde for the franchise single-season record and currently ranks first in the NFL in adjusted QBR (81.3), first in yards per carry (6.9), first in overall touchdowns (40), third in passer rating (112.8), and eighth in rushing yards. He is the first quarterback in NFL history to produce at least 2,500 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in a single season, but Jackson hopes to lead the 12-2 Ravens to Super Bowl LIV in Miami in lieu of playing in the Pro Bowl.

“This honor is all about my teammates and our coaches, because without them, the success we’ve had as a team wouldn’t be possible,” Jackson said in a statement released by the team. “I’m also grateful for all the fans who continue to support us and who have helped make this season so special. Ultimately, it’s about winning, and we still have a lot of work to do before we accomplish our biggest goals.”

Right guard Marshal Yanda, left tackle Ronnie Stanley, and fullback Patrick Ricard were also named starters for the AFC while kicker Justin Tucker and long snapper Morgan Cox were named AFC specialists. Tight end Mark Andrews, running back Mark Ingram, cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, outside linebacker Matthew Judon, and safety Earl Thomas round out Baltimore’s list of Pro Bowl selections as reserves.

Named to the Pro Bowl for the eighth time in the last nine years, Yanda is now fourth on the Ravens’ all-time Pro Bowl selections list behind Hall of Famers Ray Lewis (13), Jonathan Ogden (11), and Ed Reed (nine). He has led an offensive line that’s blocked for the NFL’s top-ranked scoring and rushing offense as the Ravens have set franchise records for total touchdowns (58), points (472), and rushing yards (2,830). Pro Football Focus has graded Yanda fourth among all NFL guards this season.

“Being voted to the Pro Bowl is an entire team honor — not just the individual,” Yanda said. “And this year, we have a lot of guys who have worked extremely hard and are being rewarded.”

Yanda wasn’t the only Baltimore offensive lineman to make it as left tackle Ronnie Stanley received his first Pro Bowl nod and has graded first among NFL left tackles by PFF. Andrews and Ricard are also first-time selections representing the Ravens offense while Ingram was named to his third career Pro Bowl in his first season with Baltimore.

Ingram is on pace to rush for over 1,000 yards for the third time in his career and ranks fourth in the NFL with 14 total touchdowns scored. Andrews’ eight touchdown receptions lead all NFL tight ends and have set a franchise record for touchdown receptions by a tight end in a single season.

“This is an extreme honor, especially since I’m in my second year,” Andrews said. “I wouldn’t be here without my teammates, particularly our other tight ends — Nick Boyle and Hayden Hurst — with everything that we all do on the field. They make my job easier, so this is not an individual award — it’s a team award.”

Humphrey and Judon also received their first Pro Bowl nods in helping lead a Baltimore defense that ranks in the top 10 in most major categories despite a slow start to the season. A 2017 first-round pick, Humphrey is one of six NFL defenders this season to post at least two interceptions, two forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries.

Judon has recorded team highs in sacks (8 1/2), tackles for a loss (13), forced fumbles (three), and quarterback hits (29) this season and is one of only three NFL defenders to have at least eight sacks, 10 tackles for loss, 25 quarterback hits, and three forced fumbles. The honor comes in a contract season for the 2016 fifth-round pick, who’s taken on more of a leadership role after the free-agent departure of longtime Raven Terrell Suggs.

“I was overjoyed when I heard the news,” Judon said. “It was probably one of the most exciting moments of my career so far. We work so hard in this game — everybody on our team has — and it’s just so rewarding. We’ve put in the work, and for so many of us to get recognized like this, it’s a testament to our hard work and our great coaching staff.

“For the fans, the coaches, and the players to say you’re one of the best players in the league this year, it really means a lot.”

Thomas was selected to his first Pro Bowl as a Raven after being named to his first six with the Seattle Seahawks. Acquired in an October trade with the Los Angeles Rams, Peters was named to his third Pro Bowl after returning an NFL-best three interceptions for touchdowns — two with the Ravens — and tying for the third-most interceptions (five) in the league this season.

The most accurate kicker in NFL history, Tucker stands second in the league this season with a 95.8-percent success rate (23-for-24) and has made two game-winning field goals — one in overtime against Pittsburgh in Week 5 and the other coming against San Francisco in Week 13. This is Tucker’s third Pro Bowl selection.

This is Cox’s third Pro Bowl selection as he’s served as the Ravens’ long snapper since 2010. Long snappers were added to the player and coach balloting system for the first time this season after the head coach of each Pro Bowl team would previously select a long snapper as a “need” player.

Nine of Baltimore’s 12 Pro Bowl selections are homegrown players who were either drafted or signed as rookie free agents by the organization. That includes first-round picks selected in three consecutive years: Stanley (2016), Humphrey (2017), and Jackson (2018). The list is certainly headlined by the sensational Jackson, but Ricard may have been the most improbable choice at the beginning of the season since he didn’t appear to even be in the Ravens’ long-term plans at the end of 2018.

“I feel humbled and appreciative because a year ago at this time, I was inactive for the final month of the season and there was outside talk about me not even making the team in 2019,” Ricard said. “I want to give credit to [offensive coordinator] Greg Roman, first and foremost, for transitioning me to fullback three years ago when I was an undrafted defensive lineman.

“Additionally, [tight ends coach Bobby] Engram and [assistant tight ends coach Andy] Bischoff — none of this would be possible without their guidance. But ultimately, I want to thank all the fans and players who voted for me, and I give a great deal of credit to my amazing teammates.”

Punter Sam Koch and right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. were named first alternates for the AFC Pro Bowl roster.

The Pro Bowl will be played at Camping World Stadium in Orlando on Jan. 26, but the Super Bowl takes place at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium a week later on Feb. 2. Any Pro Bowl players whose teams make it to the Super Bowl will be replaced for the exhibition game.

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Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen, center, has the ball knocked loose as he is hit by Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Matt Judon (99), right, during the first half of an NFL football game in Orchard Park, N.Y., Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019. The fumble was recovered by Ravens defensive end Jihad Ward. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 14 win at Buffalo

Posted on 09 December 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens winning their ninth straight game in a 24-17 final over Buffalo to officially clinch a playoff spot, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. You thought it could be over when Baltimore received the ball with seven minutes left, but a clock-smothering offense was stonewalled, leaving it up to the defense. As Matthew Judon said, “We want to be the heroes sometimes.” Late (and questionable) penalties aside, the defense saved the day.

2. Despite holding an opponent under 20 points for the seventh time in eight games, the defense had some shakier coverage than the numbers suggest. Bills quarterback Josh Allen missed some shots and was harassed to the tune of six sacks and 12 hits. The difference in quarterback play was obvious.

3. Sunday wasn’t his best day as Lamar Jackson fought challenging elements and a tough defense for the second straight week, but he shook off a rough first half to go 11-for-15 for 115 yards and two touchdowns after intermission. You’re probably the MVP favorite when a three-touchdown day feels ho-hum.

4. Hayden Hurst has faced an uphill battle after a foot injury as a rookie, but his 61-yard touchdown to begin the second half was massive and he’s caught 26 of 32 targets this season. Has Hurst really been a disappointment or has Mark Andrews’ phenom status simply hurt his perception?

5. The only thing better than Marcus Peters’ breakup of Allen’s fourth-down throw to John Brown to seal the victory was his Stone Cold Steve Austin-like celebration. He bounced back from last week’s rough showing against San Francisco in a big way with three pass breakups and four tackles.

6. When the 4-2 Ravens began a stretch of six of seven against teams over .500 in October, you probably hoped for a 5-2 mark and would have lived with a 4-3 record. Baltimore went 7-0 with a plus-150 point differential and is 7-1 against teams currently 8-5 or better. Domination.

7. Credit the Bills defense for limiting the Ravens to a season-low 118 rushing yards. To hold Jackson to his lowest rushing total since Week 1 and Mark Ingram to just 3.3 yards per carry was impressive and helps explain why Greg Roman was so out of sync as a play-caller.

8. Sam Koch’s seven punts more than doubled his previous season high (three). He hadn’t punted more than four times in any of Jackson’s first 19 regular-season starts, so you hope his kicking leg is recovered enough in time for Thursday night.

9. With their offense shattering franchise records left and right, you could have made some money betting on the Ravens being part of the first NFL game this season in which both teams had fewer than 100 yards of offense in the first half. Sports are funny.

10. Marquise Brown has four catches for minus-one yard and the Ravens have logged only two plays of 20 or more yards that weren’t aided by penalty over the last two games. Dealing with foot and ankle issues, the rookie could probably use a January bye week as much as anyone.

11. Jaylon Ferguson rebounding from last week’s performance against San Francisco was encouraging as the rookie registered a sack, three quarterback hits, and three tackles. His continued development will be critical down the stretch, especially against outside runs.

12. The Ravens tied the franchise record with their sixth road win of 2019 and extended their team-record away winning streak to five. Because of that, they will very likely play just one more road game this season — unless you want to consider Miami on Feb. 2.

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Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson hugs Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff after an NFL football game Monday, Nov. 25, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 12 win over Rams

Posted on 26 November 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens winning a franchise-record fourth straight road game in a 45-6 rout of the defending NFC champion Los Angeles Rams, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Five games into what was to be a daunting stretch of six of seven contests against teams over .500, Baltimore is 5-0 by a margin of 202-62. The Ravens haven’t trailed in a game in five weeks, a stretch of 18 quarters. It’s really not supposed to be this easy.

2. Much like they couldn’t know Ray Lewis or Ed Reed would be Hall of Famers when they fell to them, the Ravens didn’t foresee Lamar Jackson being the MVP favorite in his second year or they wouldn’t have risked losing him multiple times. But their innovative vision has been brilliant.

3. Despite 22 quarterbacks having more pass attempts, Jackson pulled into a tie with Russell Wilson for the NFL lead with 24 touchdown passes. He’s doubled his season total over the last three weeks and is now nine shy of Vinny Testaverde’s single-season team record. He also runs pretty well.

4. Against a top-tier rush defense, Baltimore ran for a season-high 285 yards, the fifth-highest total in team history. Between that and Jackson’s 76-percent completion percentage since the bye, I’m not sure how much you’d stop them right now even if the NFL allowed opponents to use a 12th defender.

5. Playing with an offense that scores touchdowns on its first six possessions is much different than protecting a late one-score lead, but the intensity maintained by the Ravens defense was impressive. That group has become a very worthy partner that will be needed more at some point — I think.

6. You hope for the best for Matt Skura, who had many doubters this offseason and has played rock-solid football in the middle of the offensive line. However, the Ravens have to be pleased with how undrafted rookie Patrick Mekari filled in at center, a position he never played in college.

7. The group was already improving, but the acquisition of Marcus Peters and the healthy return of Jimmy Smith returned the Ravens defense to a level its more accustomed to being. Both are in contract years and have been dynamic contributors in the secondary, especially Peters.

8. Speaking of dynamic talents, there hasn’t been a better defensive player in football over the last five years than Aaron Donald, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year winner. Making the Rams defensive tackle an utter non-factor is the offensive line’s most impressive feat of the season.

9. Running the ball on third-and-12 from the Los Angeles 34 and then going for a fourth-and-1 shows how John Harbaugh, Greg Roman, and this staff are playing chess while most of the league plays checkers. That’s a compliment typically reserved for Bill Belichick and New England, but it’s fitting.

10. A sideline camera showing Sam Koch and Justin Tucker whenever the Ravens approach — and then forgo — a potential kicking situation would be entertaining. Koch has punted just four times since the bye week. He’s getting plenty of work as the holder, however.

11. My only nitpick from Monday — other than the Rams’ Big Bird uniforms — was Jackson taking a few too many hits, especially when the game was out of hand. I believe in his ability to avoid contact, but there’s no need to test that when up by four or five touchdowns.

12. Hearing Jackson talk Super Bowl, I recall Brian Billick’s words to the 2000 Ravens after clinching a playoff spot in Week 15: “The time is here. It’s time to go to a Super Bowl.” Competitive windows aren’t guaranteed; the moment is now for a team capable of winning it all.

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