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Ravens-Bills: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 07 December 2019 by Luke Jones

Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen were the most scrutinized of the five quarterbacks selected in the first round of the 2018 draft, but both are leading their teams to prosperity as the rest of the class struggles a year later.

Jackson’s MVP-sized leap has positioned the Ravens as the top team in the AFC entering Week 14 while Allen’s improvement has Buffalo in position for its first double-digit-win season in 20 years and only its second trip to the playoffs since 1999. Baltimore is trying to hold off New England for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs while the Bills are just a game behind the Patriots in the AFC East, creating no shortage of ramifications for Sunday’s encounter at New Era Field.

It’s time to go on the record as these AFC teams meet for the ninth time in the all-time series with the Ravens holding a 5-3 advantage. However, the Bills are 2-0 against the Ravens in Buffalo.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Jackson will break the single-season rushing record for a quarterback with a highlight touchdown. Just 62 yards separate Jackson from Michael Vick’s mark of 1,039 rushing yards in 2006, making it a simple matter of when the Ravens quarterback breaks the record. He has rushed for at least 65 yards in eight of the last nine games and leads the NFL with nine run plays of at least 20 yards, so why not break the NFL record in style against a defense ranking 21st in the NFL in yards per carry allowed?

2. The Ravens defense will give up 140 rushing yards for the second straight week. Jackson isn’t the only flashy runner in this one as Bills running back Devin Singletary ranks third in the NFL at 5.6 yards per carry and trails only Jackson for the highest percentage of carries of 10 or more yards. Baltimore’s sensational offense has masked a run defense ranking 22nd in yards per carry allowed and 25th in efficiency. Both Singletary and Allen can be problematic on the edges if Buffalo stays in the game.

3. A punt block will help set up a Baltimore score. Marlon Humphrey blocked the first field goal of the season for the Ravens and the punt return team also came close to a block last week while the Bills rank 28th in special-teams efficiency and have been particularly vulnerable in the punt game this season. There’s no threat of bitter temperatures or major precipitation for Sunday’s game, but winds 15 to 20 miles per hour could be a factor in the kicking game, an area where Baltimore has a sharp advantage.

4. Mark Ingram will eclipse 100 rushing yards for the fifth time this season. The defenses that have done the most respectable job of slowing the Ravens — no one has come close to stopping them, of course — have taken away the run between the tackles and made Jackson more of a one-man show. With the Bills sporting the NFL’s third-ranked pass defense and wind being a factor, the Ravens will want to wear down a weak run defense with Ingram and Gus Edwards in a grind-it-out affair.

5. Baltimore will win its ninth straight game in a 26-14 final. Buffalo definitely earned some respect for its convincing road win over Dallas on Thanksgiving, but the Bills have played the easiest schedule in the NFL to this point and own the lowest strength of victory in the AFC. The Ravens not only beat the NFC’s former top seed in San Francisco last week, but they did it in a way that exposed a few flaws for the coaching staff to capture players’ attention in case anyone was growing a little too cocky after five straight double-digit wins. Allen has made real strides as a passer since early in the season and the Bills are good enough to pull off an upset in what should be a raucous atmosphere, but that would require the Ravens to provide some help with the kind of mistakes we’ve rarely seen over the last two months. Sunday won’t be a blowout, but it won’t feel like the Ravens are in real danger of losing either.

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Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Seth Roberts (11) celebrates with teammates Marquise Brown (15) and Willie Snead (83) after scoring on a touchdown pass from Lamar Jackson, not visible, during the first half of an NFL football game against the Houston Texans, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 11 win over Houston

Posted on 19 November 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens winning a sixth consecutive game for the first time since 2000 in a 41-7 demolition of Houston, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The debate over MVP continues, but I don’t know how anyone could objectively watch the Ravens win their last four games — three against playoff contenders — by a combined 101 points and not say they’re football’s best team. They look like they’re playing a different sport than everyone else right now.

2. I had to laugh at overreaction from the few remaining critics about Lamar Jackson’s 1-for-6 first quarter before he completed 13 straight passes and finished the day with four touchdown passes. Four other quarterbacks threw four interceptions in Week 11, one shy of Jackson’s season total.

3. Jackson ranks 11th or better in completion percentage, passing yards per attempt, touchdown passes, QBR, and passer rating. He’s fifth in Pro Football Focus’ passer grading. Yes, his rushing ability is what makes him special, but he’s made an obvious statement as an above-average passer this season.

4. Matthew Judon was a game wrecker with two sacks, an additional tackle for a loss, four quarterback hits, a forced fumble, and seven total tackles. We can debate to what lengths the Ravens should go to extend him, but Judon is going to get paid very handsomely.

5. His role predictably changed with the Mark Ingram addition, but Gus Edwards had a 63-yard touchdown and 112-yard rushing day against a Houston run defense that hadn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in the regular season since 2017. He could be the best short-yardage back in the NFL.

6. Seth Roberts caught his first touchdown of 2019, but wide receivers combined for just five catches for 51 yards. That’s not a stat line you typically associate with a 34-point victory, but this group works hard as blockers and doesn’t complain about the lack of involvement in the passing game.

7. There was plenty of bravado from Marcus Peters when he matched up against All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Peters’ play has been excellent, and his preparation and professionalism have been praised since his arrival. Regardless of what happens with his free agency, this trade was outstanding.

8. Watching Ingram’s second touchdown made me wonder if Jackson is giving his teammates pointers for when they’re in the open field. This offense is something else to watch, scoring on seven straight drives — not counting the kneel to end the first half — after a slow start.

9. Jackson targeting Miles Boykin on two of the first three pass plays seemed like a deliberate attempt to get the rookie more involved. There was optimism that Boykin might be turning the corner after his 50-yard catch in Seattle, but he hasn’t registered a catch since the bye.

10. We didn’t see many wrinkles from Houston coming off the bye as I expected Bill O’Brien would at least use more of an up-tempo attack to offset Baltimore’s frequent substituting. I was disappointed Deshaun Watson, a terrific quarterback, didn’t hold up his end of the anticipated showdown with Jackson.

11. The Ravens are six touchdowns shy of the single-season franchise record (47) set in 2009. We’re still a week from Thanksgiving. This is the most impressive regular-season team we’ve seen in Baltimore since at least 2006, a team often forgotten because of the crushing playoff loss to Indianapolis.

12. I try to tread carefully with attendance since I haven’t paid to go to a Ravens game since 2010, but I was surprised over the number of empty seats at the stadium. There was much buzz for a matchup between two young stars at quarterback and two 2018 playoff teams.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 10 win at Cincinnati

Posted on 12 November 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens winning their fifth consecutive game in a 49-13 final at Cincinnati, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. After posting a 158.3 passer rating 30 miles from his hometown in Week 1, Lamar Jackson had another perfect day 100 miles from where he won a Heisman Trophy at Louisville. Playing like that in front of so many who watched him on his path to NFL stardom is special.

2. Being traded in the middle of a contract year can be a challenging transition, but Marcus Peters has now returned two interceptions for touchdowns over his first three games as a Raven. A cornerback with a boom-or-bust reputation is putting himself in position for a huge payday.

3. Marquise Brown has caught seven of eight targets for 128 yards and a touchdown since returning from an ankle sprain. The rookie performing like this at less than 100 percent continues to be impressive and encouraging for his future if he can stay healthy.

4. The Ravens haven’t posted a winning road record in the regular season since 2010, but they’re 4-1 in away games this season and 6-2 on the road since Jackson became the starter last year. Road success in the regular season is what allows teams to play at home in January.

5. Brandon Williams has played some of the best football of his career in recent weeks, which included a season-best seven tackles in 59 defensive snaps with Michael Pierce exiting Sunday’s game early. Williams’ Week 4 spat with Earl Thomas feels like a long time ago, doesn’t it?

6. Nick Boyle had four catches for a career-high 78 yards and has now set a new single-season high in receiving yards nine games into 2019. Mark Andrews headlines, but all three Baltimore tight ends have been superb, combining to catch 71.6 percent of targets for 949 yards and seven touchdowns.

7. In a combined 30 snaps between offense and defense, Patrick Ricard had a big block on Mark Ingram’s touchdown run, recorded a tackle for no gain, logged a strip-sack returned by Tyus Bowser for a touchdown, and had another tackle for a minimal gain. That’s quite a splash.

8. The “Heisman Package” resulted in a 12-yard gain as Jackson pitched to Robert Griffin III on the option. As John Harbaugh said, “Guys like to have fun,” but I’m now expecting Vinny Testaverde, Ricky Williams, and Troy Smith to come back if they’re serious about this Heisman thing.

9. With the return of Jimmy Smith, the arrival of Peters, and the shift of Brandon Carr to safety and Chuck Clark to the box in the dime, Anthony Levine has played only 11 defensive snaps since the bye. Levine is a good player, but it speaks to improved secondary depth.

10. Sam Koch didn’t have to punt until the 1:14 mark of the fourth quarter in Cincinnati. His career low for punts in a season is 60, but the longtime Raven is currently on pace to punt only 37 times in 2019. Things sure have changed here in Baltimore.

11. Jackson did the heavy lifting, but CBS play-by-play man Kevin Harlan’s call of the electric 47-yard touchdown run was a lot of fun. Harlan is one of the more underrated broadcasters in the business. “He is Houdini!” will be remembered by Ravens fans for a long time.

12. I couldn’t have been the only one who thought of Tony Siragusa late in the Ravens’ 2000 playoff win over Tennessee when Jackson was shown wearing sunglasses on the sideline. Siragusa gets bonus points for taking those shades from Brian Billick and that being a more important game, however.

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Marquise Brown making plays, pushing way through trying rookie season

Posted on 06 November 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — If anyone understands the challenges faced by Ravens wide receiver Marquise Brown during his rookie season, it’s teammate Jimmy Smith.

In 2014, the veteran cornerback sustained a Lisfranc injury from which he’s felt effects for years. That Brown has been productive at all after missing the entire spring and part of training camp recovering from the left foot injury that required surgery in January is impressive.

“It’s a tough injury, extremely tough,” Smith said. “I know what he’s going through as far as every time he gets up and wakes up and it’s cold outside, that thing hurts. I understand it. And having a high-ankle [sprain] — which I also had — back to back, he’s fighting his way. He’s coming up making plays. He’s keeping his head up.

“All the guys talk to him. I’ve been in his ear letting him know, ‘You’re going to get over it eventually.’ But I’m proud of the way he’s bounced back and performed.”

That high-ankle sprain Brown sustained to his right leg in the Oct. 6 win at Pittsburgh sidelined him for the final two games before the bye week. After returning to play 40 snaps in Sunday’s 37-20 win over New England, Brown wasn’t on the Wednesday injury report for the first time since Week 5, but that doesn’t mean he’s fully recovered as he still walked with a slight limp during the portion of practice open to media.

Head coach John Harbaugh has said Brown is “nowhere near where he’s going to be” as a player, an impressive assessment considering he remains Baltimore’s leading wide receiver with 24 catches for 374 yards — numbers second to only tight end Mark Andrews — and three touchdowns in not even six full games of action. His diving third-down reception to move the chains and 26-yard gain on a jet sweep pass on the opening drive against the Patriots were an early boost to both the Ravens and Brown’s confidence as the first-round pick returns from his latest ailment. He’ll hope to build on that three-catch, 48-yard performance in Sunday’s trip to Cincinnati after missing the Week 6 game against the Bengals last month.

“It’s just more like with the team being out there with the guys, not wanting to let them down,” Brown said. “But they all encourage me. They know I’m not 100 [percent], but they’re like, ‘When you’re out there, you’re going to make plays.’ I just keep that in my head.”

Left tackle Ronnie Stanley was absent from Wednesday’s practice after tweaking his left knee on backup running back Justice Hill’s run 2-yard run with 6:22 to play in Sunday’s 37-20 win over New England. Despite being in obvious discomfort for the remainder of that final touchdown drive, the fourth-year offensive lineman played every remaining offensive snap and was deemed OK by head coach John Harbaugh when asked about Stanley’s status on Monday.

Right guard Marshal Yanda also missed Wednesday’s practice with an illness he caught from his children, according to Harbaugh.

Return specialist and wide receiver De’Anthony Thomas made his practice debut and appears to be a good bet to at least see action as a kick returner against the Bengals. Harbaugh said the Ravens will “see how it shakes out” in regards to Thomas’ game-day role after punt returner Cyrus Jones lost a fumble in the second quarter against the Patriots.

“Just catch the ball. That’s it. That’s all I’ve got to do,” said Jones, who hadn’t fumbled since Week 14 of last season after a history of ball-security problems with New England. “I’ve got one job: catch the ball. Catch the ball.”

In other roster-related news, cornerback Maurice Canady was claimed by the New York Jets after being waived to make room for Thomas on Tuesday.

Baltimore signed running back Byron Marshall to its practice squad Wednesday.

Bengals head coach Zac Taylor initially expressed his expectation that seven-time wide receiver A.J. Green (ankle) would make his season debut against the Ravens, but Green didn’t practice Wednesday after experiencing discomfort during a walk-through and is now considered day-to-day, a concerning development for an 0-8 team starting rookie quarterback Ryan Finley for the first time on Sunday.

Below is Wednesday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: RB Mark Ingram (non-injury), OT Ronnie Stanley (knee), G Marshal Yanda (illness), S Earl Thomas (non-injury)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: WR Chris Moore (thumb)

CINCINNATI
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: TE Tyler Eifert (non-injury), WR A.J. Green (ankle), CB Dre Kirkpatrick (knee), G Alex Redmond (knee/ankle)
FULL PARTICIPATION: CB Darqueze Denard (hamstring), OT Cordy Glenn (concussion), DE Carl Lawson (hamstring), G John Miller (groin)

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Ravens-Patriots: Five predictions for Sunday night

Posted on 02 November 2019 by Luke Jones

The question has been asked since the final seconds ticked away in the Ravens’ statement win at Seattle two weeks ago.

How will Baltimore attack a New England defense that’s given up an absurd 7.6 points per game and third-down conversions just 15.6 percent of the time this season? The Patriots defense has scored as many touchdowns (four) as it’s allowed all year. Easy schedule or not, you just don’t see those kinds of amazing numbers in the modern NFL that panders to offense.

A Bill Belichick defense tries to take away what an opponent does best, forcing its offense to play “left-handed.” But no one makes a defense look like it’s playing with two left feet quite like Lamar Jackson, creating one of the most fascinating matchups of the season.

You can bet on Belichick and the Patriots showing Jackson something he hasn’t seen in his first full year as a starter, but New England hasn’t faced anyone quite like the 22-year-old, making New England’s streak of 21 straight wins over rookie or second-year quarterbacks less relevant.

“We’ll see how good they are once we play them,” Ravens tight end Nick Boyle said. “I mean I don’t think they’ve seen anyone like our offense or like Lamar — special player. But they’re a good team, and we really need to bring our ‘A’ game and make sure we’re on everything.”

It’s time to go on the record as these teams meet for the first time since 2016 and the 10th time overall in the regular-season series with the Patriots enjoying an 8-1 mark. The Ravens are just 1-3 against New England in Baltimore, but they’re 3-6 overall against the Patriots in the John Harbaugh era, which includes a 2-2 record in the postseason.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Mark Ingram will rush for 100 yards for the first time since Week 3. Recent opponents have committed to stopping the Baltimore running game between the tackles, which has led to Jackson running wild off the edge while Ingram has averaged just 3.2 yards per carry over the last three games. One of the Patriots’ biggest strengths is their discipline, which will keep Jackson from dominating with his legs. However, their relative weakness has been stopping the run as Buffalo and Cleveland — the only good ground games New England has faced — both averaged more than 6.0 yards per carry. The Patriots have a good front, but it isn’t dominant enough to contain both Jackson and Ingram.

2. A trick play will lead to a Patriots touchdown. New England leads the league in points scored, but 25 takeaways mask what’s been a mediocre start for an offense ranking 16th in yards per game, 23rd in rush offense, 18th on third down, and 23rd inside the red zone. Meanwhile, the Ravens are coming off their best defensive showing of the season against Seattle. The defensive communication and discipline have improved in recent weeks, but there are still many new parts to this group and Tom Brady and Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels are aware of that. With two receivers — Julian Edelman and Mohamed Sanu — capable of throwing the ball, the Ravens must be on alert for trickery.

3. Lamar Jackson will throw for 180 yards and a touchdown to Mark Andrews with no turnovers. The Patriots play more man coverage — and play it better — than anyone in the league, but a secondary turning its back to Jackson is a dangerous proposition when he breaks free from the pocket, which is why opponents are forced to play more zone against him. Zone coverage creates the throwing lanes a more accurate Jackson has taken better advantage of this year. New England is also very good playing zone and opportunities for big plays against a terrific pass defense will be sparse, but Jackson’s improvement protecting the ball has been the most overlooked part of his progress this year.

4. James White will catch a touchdown and be Tom Brady’s leading receiver. With Marlon Humphrey likely to travel with Edelman, Brady will need to look elsewhere for consistent completions with White ranking second on the team with 42 catches for 358 yards. Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort have brought stability at inside linebacker, but that’s still an area of the defense opponents should try to exploit. New England must rely on scheme more than ever without dynamic talent at the skill positions, so look for White to find space underneath thanks to some creative looks and formations. Of course, if the toe injury that landed White on Friday’s injury report is an issue, all bets could be off here.

5. A late takeaway and superior special teams will help the Ravens hold on for a 20-17 win. Neither of these teams is built to play from behind, making it critical for Baltimore to stay on schedule and have a lead entering the fourth quarter when the ground game can impose its will. But special teams will also loom large in a tight game with Football Outsiders ranking Baltimore first in efficiency and New England ranking an uncharacteristic 26th and having just signed new kicker Nick Folk this week. Justin Tucker is a perfect 16-for-16 on field goals this season and will once again be a difference-maker in a close tilt. The Ravens are the more rested team and are 9-2 coming off their bye under Harbaugh, which will give them another edge in handing the Patriots their first defeat of 2019. What more could you ask for in the first Sunday night game played in Baltimore since 2012?

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Twelve Ravens thoughts going into Week 9

Posted on 29 October 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens coming off their bye week with a 5-2 record and a two-game lead in the AFC North, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The winless Miami Dolphins were the big only “buyers” on a toothless trade deadline day, but remember the Ravens acquired two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters two weeks ago for a benched linebacker and a 2020 fifth-round pick. That’s a lot more than other contenders could say.

2. That Eric DeCosta inquired about Pro Bowl safety Jamal Adams reaffirms the philosophy of having a strong secondary above all else on defense. Legitimate pass-rush concerns remain, but having Peters and a healthy Jimmy Smith helps reset the defense closer to its pre-summer state. We’ll see how it plays out.

3. Not counting Pittsburgh’s annual trip to Baltimore, I’m not sure the Ravens have played a more anticipated home game in the regular season since hosting New England for Sunday Night Football in 2012, a contest sandwiched between their AFC Championship meetings. I can’t wait.

4. After labeling Lamar Jackson “a big problem” for his defense, Bill Belichick is bound to show the young quarterback something he hasn’t seen before. However, the future Hall of Fame coach hasn’t seen a talent quite like Jackson either. I’ll repeat that throughout the week.

5. If you bristled over the talk about the Ravens’ schedule prior to the win at Seattle, pump the brakes on being too dismissive about the New England defense’s slate of opponents to this point. The numbers are simply ridiculous — even against bad competition — in today’s NFL.

6. The Ravens are 9-2 immediately following their bye in the John Harbaugh era with the only defeats coming in 2013 and 2015, two of Harbaugh’s three non-winning seasons. That doesn’t guarantee victory, but Baltimore usually plays its best with extra time to prepare, which isn’t a given in this league.

7. Former Raven Lawrence Guy has carved out a nice place for himself in New England, but his career highlight may now be his involvement in a play the “Butt Fumble” thought was embarrassing. Congratulations are in order for his first career interception.

8. I’ve been asked recently about Gus Edwards receiving more touches. Edwards has averaged 5.2 yards per carry since Week 3 while Mark Ingram — a more complete back — has been slowed some recently, but there’s only one football. I suspect we’ll see a few more carries for Edwards down the stretch.

9. After watching another uninspiring performance by Cleveland and Pittsburgh falling behind 14-0 to Miami before waking up to regroup, I remain convinced it would take quite a collapse by the Ravens to not win the AFC North in comfortable fashion. Those division foes aren’t reeling off a long winning streak.

10. The Willie Snead extension didn’t prove to be the harbinger of a deadline trade, but Baltimore had under $2 million in salary cap space and needed flexibility for inevitable roster maneuvering the rest of the way. It’s a solid move to keep a reliable slot receiver who’s a good blocker.

11. News of C.J. Mosley missing at least another five to six weeks with a groin injury was bad news for the Ravens’ projected third-round compensatory pick. The more time he misses, the greater the chance that selection becomes a fourth-rounder. Mosley missed just three games in five years with Baltimore.

12. The Ravens will be wearing their black jerseys for the first time this season, and Ed Reed will be in the house to receive his Hall of Fame ring at halftime. As if you needed more reason to be pumped for a game against Tom Brady and the undefeated Patriots.

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Revisiting 2019 Ravens predictions coming out of bye week

Posted on 28 October 2019 by Luke Jones

Looking back at preseason predictions can be an amusing or embarrassing exercise, but that’s what makes it fun, right?

If we truly knew how the Ravens’ 2019 season would play out, I’d spend less time writing about it and more time pondering my retirement plans at the nearest sportsbook. As it relates to the present, I originally envisioned Baltimore being 4-3 at the bye with the result of the Cleveland and Pittsburgh games flipped and a loss at Seattle in Week 7. I certainly didn’t anticipate the rest of the AFC North being a combined 4-17 entering Monday, which bodes very well for the Ravens the rest of the way.

Let’s review how my 10 Ravens predictions for 2019 are holding up through the bye week and adjust where necessary:

1. Lamar Jackson won’t break Michael Vick’s season rushing record for a quarterback, but his 3,000 passing yards and 60-percent completion percentage will be positive steps in his development.

Remember Week 1 when Lamar Jackson ran the ball only three times, one of those being an end-of-half kneel? The 22-year-old quarterback has registered double-digit carries in four of the last six games, leads the NFL in yards per carry (6.9), and is 10th overall in rushing. He’s not only going to shatter Vick’s record (1,039 yards in 2006), but Jackson will finish with just over 3,400 passing yards and a completion percentage over 60 percent. We’re watching a special talent who has shown marked improvement from his rookie year and is firmly in the MVP discussion halfway through the season.

2. The defense will register 37 sacks and see its pressure rate fall to the bottom half of the league.

I was too generous in the sack department as Baltimore is currently on pace to finish with 27 quarterback takedowns, but there is at least some evidence suggesting the pass rush is better than the sack total indicates if you look at quarterback hits and ESPN Analytics’ pass rush win rate. Of course, Pernell McPhee’s season-ending injury complicates that argument and puts more pressure on Eric DeCosta to land a pass rusher by Tuesday’s trade deadline. The biggest factor helping the pass rush could be the acquisition of Marcus Peters and the return of Jimmy Smith, who should provide better coverage in the secondary. Put me down for 30 sacks by season’s end.

3. Mark Ingram will give Baltimore its first 1,000-yard rusher since Justin Forsett.

The former New Orleans Saint has been as advertised with a 4.7 yards per carry average and is on pace to gain 1,074 rushing yards. However, it’s fair to note that opposing defenses have been more successful slowing the Baltimore ground game between the tackles in recent weeks as Ingram has averaged only 3.2 yards per attempt over the last three contests. Opponents must make a conscious choice between accounting for runs between the tackles and trying to prevent Jackson from killing them off the edge. With that push-pull dilemma, Jackson and Ingram will become the first teammates to rush for 1,000 yards in the same season since Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams for Carolina in 2009.

4. Mark Andrews and Patrick Onwuasor will take a step forward.

If there was one prediction I was confident about prior to the season, it was Andrews breaking out as one of the NFL’s top tight ends. Even with some nagging injuries and a nightmare Week 7 showing against the Seahawks, Andrews is on pace to become the first tight end in team history to go over 1,000 receiving yards. Meanwhile, Onwuasor has taken a step back after struggling at the “Mike” linebacker position and missing the last two games with a high ankle sprain. How that impacts his value going into free agency will be interesting, but his return to the weak-side spot should be a plus for him and the pass rush when considering Onwuasor’s ability to blitz and the 5 1/2 sacks he collected last year.

5. Gus Edwards and Jimmy Smith will take a step back.

Since averaging an underwhelming 3.35 yards per carry in the first two games, Edwards has been very productive at 5.2 yards per carry over the last five contests. The problem continues to be few chances when you’re behind arguably the most dynamic running quarterback in NFL history and a two-time Pro Bowl back in the pecking order. Edwards could see a few more carries here and there, but there’s only one football to go around. Smith’s knee injury on the sixth defensive snap of the season was unfortunate in a contract year, but it’s the story of his career as he’s now missed at least four games in seven of his nine seasons. The 31-year-old does have time to rebuild some value and give the Ravens a boost the rest of the way, but we’ll always wonder how much better Smith might have been with good health.

6. Ben Powers will be starting at left guard by the bye week.

Based on comments made by offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris last week, there’s little reason to believe Bradley Bozeman won’t be starting at left guard against New England. The second-year lineman hasn’t been great every week, but Pro Football Focus has graded him 42nd among qualified guards, a reminder that there just isn’t as much quality around the league as fans and some media want to believe when scrutinizing individual teams. Powers has been a healthy scratch every week and received a lengthy look at left guard early in training camp before falling out of the starting race, factors leading one to believe the 2019 fourth-round pick isn’t beating down the door for a starting gig at this point. If anything, fellow rookie Patrick Mekari would seem to be the first in line to replace Bozeman.

7. A rough November will cost the Ravens their chance at winning the AFC North.

This month’s schedule remains challenging with three of the four opponents sporting no worse than a 5-3 record and even lowly Cincinnati coming off its bye to host the Ravens in Week 10, but John Harbaugh’s team clearly has some room for error with the rest of the AFC North under .500. Even a disastrous November coupled with Pittsburgh or Cleveland reeling off a perfect month would leave the Ravens in the thick of the division race entering December. More importantly, the convincing road win over the Seahawks provided much confidence that the Ravens can at least hold their own with five of the next six games coming against teams owning winning records.

8. Miles Boykin will tie the franchise rookie record for touchdown receptions with seven.

If you’d told me at the start of the season that one of Baltimore’s two rookie wide receivers would have 21 catches for 326 yards and three touchdowns at the bye, I would have picked Boykin after Marquise Brown missed the entire spring and a large portion of the summer recovering from Lisfranc surgery. Boykin does have two touchdowns and has recorded his two longest catches over the last two games, but he has much work ahead to match the record shared by Torrey Smith and Marlon Brown. If fully healthy — a fair question after a two-game absence — Marquise Brown has the better chance to break it.

9. Marlon Humphrey, Marshal Yanda, and Earl Thomas will be named to the Pro Bowl.

Despite being a little less consistent than last season, Humphrey has made enough splash plays to keep himself in position for his first Pro Bowl invitation with a strong finish to the season. The 35-year-old Yanda is no longer the best guard in football, but he continues to play at a high level to presumably receive the nod for the eighth time in his career. Thomas hasn’t been spectacular, but he has played well and benefits from a strong reputation around the league in the same way Eric Weddle did. I’ll add Jackson and Andrews to my list of Pro Bowl picks with Ronnie Stanley being a first alternate.

10. A December rally will lead to a 9-7 finish and another trip to the playoffs.

With the current state of the AFC North and the Ravens off to a 5-2 start, anything less than a division championship and a home playoff game would be a big disappointment, but the final month of the season does look more difficult than it did several weeks ago with San Francisco still undefeated and playoff-hopeful Buffalo likely having much to play for in Week 14. I thought throughout the offseason that the Ravens had a higher ceiling — and a lower floor — than in recent years because of their youth, but Jackson’s development was always going to be the biggest factor determining their fate. With the second-year quarterback playing like a legitimate MVP candidate, I see the Ravens going 11-5 and advancing to the divisional round of the playoffs. A deeper postseason run no longer feels farfetched if they can stay healthy the rest of the way.

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Future meets present at quarterback as Ravens aim to take down Seattle

Posted on 18 October 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The greatest praise Ravens defensive players have offered Lamar Jackson is admitting how much they dislike facing the dual-threat quarterback in practice.

It’s why any comparison made to Russell Wilson serves both as a compliment to the Seattle quarterback and a reminder of what still lies ahead for a 22-year-old making just his 15th career start against the 5-1 Seahawks on Sunday. Such a juxtaposition would have been mocked by many only a month or two ago, but Jackson’s substantial improvement as a passer doesn’t make it farfetched to think he could be as accomplished as the Super Bowl-winning Wilson one day.

“I think he’s the only guy that I’ve seen do it pretty effortlessly like Lamar does,” said cornerback Marlon Humphrey of Wilson, who’s the current favorite to be the NFL’s MVP. “We always say we don’t want to play Lamar, so I guess we’re kind of playing a polished-up, couple-years-down-the-line Lamar. We definitely better get ready because he definitely can do it all.”

Jackson is hardly a carbon copy of the six-time Pro Bowl quarterback, of course, but certain similarities are undeniable. Five quarterbacks were selected ahead of Wilson in the 2012 draft with even the Seahawks passing on him twice before the third round; four quarterbacks were taken before Jackson last year with the Ravens making him their second selection of the 2018 draft. Both have fought NFL quarterback constructs with Wilson being only 5-foot-11 and Jackson pushing back against the “athlete” label that prompted some evaluators to suggest a position change before last year’s draft.

The differences are clear as Jackson has no peer among rushing quarterbacks with the mobile Wilson having run for more than 600 rushing yards in a season just once in his career and the Baltimore quarterback currently on pace to run for over 1,200 this year. Wilson is the more accurate passer, but it’s worth noting he had a completion percentage of only 57.8 percentage over his three years at North Carolina State — Jackson completed 57 percent in his career at Louisville — before completing 72.8 percent of throws in his senior season at Wisconsin, a jump that improved his draft stock considerably.

Jackson has markedly improved his completion percentage from 58.2 percent as a rookie to 65.1 percent this season and is on pace for 4,000 passing yards, but his athleticism is what makes him truly unique as he became the first quarterback to ever win the NFL’s Ground Player of the Week Award for his 152-yard rushing effort against Cincinnati last Sunday. He also threw for 236 yards against the Bengals, making him the first to ever pass for 200 yards and rush for 150 in an NFL regular-season game.

Not bad for a young quarterback whose team has gone 10-3 in the regular season since he became the Ravens starter last November, trumped only by Seattle’s 11-2 mark over that time.

“I just want to do what I have to do to win with my guys,” Jackson said. “I see other quarterbacks. I see them play. They do a great job. But like I said, it’s a new era, and they need [dual-threat quarterbacks] right now. It’s not the same as years before.”

Jackson would be the first to tell you the 30-year-old Wilson remains on another level right now as he has 14 touchdowns and a league-leading 124.7 passer rating. He’s graded as Pro Football Focus’ top quarterback through Week 6 and has yet to throw an interception in 189 pass attempts.

Wilson still doesn’t hesitate to leave the pocket, either, as his 151 rushing yards rank fifth among quarterbacks this season. He isn’t as likely to take off for a big gain, but the veteran’s ability to extend plays and improvise as a passer puts incredible pressure on opposing secondaries to hang with downfield targets Tyler Lockett and D.K. Metcalf. Jackson taking off and throwing on the run more effectively could be the final step to making him unstoppable.

“It’s sort of like playing against Steph Curry in basketball, if you will,” said Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale about Wilson. “You can pick him up from half court, and he’s going to try to drive by you when you’re saying ‘keep him in the pocket.’ Or, you can slack off, and he’s going to pull up and hit a three. He’s just playing at a really high level right now, and I don’t argue with anybody that’s saying he’s playing at an MVP level.”

The Ravens defense will surely have their hands full, but a middle-of-the-road Seahawks defense must deal with Jackson, who creates as many headaches for defensive coordinators as anyone in the league in his first full season as a starter. Making his first start at a raucous CenturyLink Field will be a tall order, but the Ravens have been impressed with Jackson’s poise on the road, which includes two one-score losses at Arrowhead Stadium in his young career.

Seattle is a far cry from its “Legion of Boom” days defensively, but it will still be a great test and opportunity for a young quarterback garnering some MVP attention himself.

“He’s just way, way more advanced. We do so much more now,” said head coach John Harbaugh about Jackson’s growth from his rookie year. “Our motions are more complex. Our cadence is more complex, both verbal and silent. We’re under [center]; we’re in the gun; we’re pistol; we’re empty. We do a lot of different things, and he’s really done a good job handling all of it.”

It won’t be easy for Jackson and the Ravens, who could be without speedy wide receiver Marquise Brown for the second straight game. Baltimore has managed just six pass plays of 20 or more yards over its last three games after producing 16 over the first three weeks of the season.

The Ravens defense added two-time cornerback Marcus Peters earlier this week, but the middling unit is still trying to find its way with new pieces and a pass rush that’s accounted for just 11 sacks in six games. Seattle will easily provide the toughest test since Kansas City and Cleveland combined to shred the Ravens for 73 points and over 1,000 yards in Weeks 3 and 4.

But much like the Seahawks with Wilson over the years, the Ravens are quickly finding they always have a chance with Jackson at the helm. Win or lose Sunday, that’s an exciting thought that bodes well for the future.

“It’s a playoff-caliber team, playoff-caliber environment,” running back Mark Ingram said. “We aspire to be one of the best teams going into the playoffs and winning championships, so you have to be able to do things like that if you want to be a championship team. It’s a big challenge for us.”

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Ravens-Bengals: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 12 October 2019 by Luke Jones

Recent history tells us Sunday’s game with Cincinnati should be a major concern for the Ravens, but the present paints a different picture.

John Harbaugh’s team is not without its issues, of course, but the Bengals are 0-5 under new coach Zac Taylor, rank in the bottom six in both scoring offense and scoring defense, and have already ruled out six players for Week 6. That list includes seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green and two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Carlos Dunlap, two players who’ve tormented the Ravens over the years.

It’s time to go on the record as these division rivals collide for the 47th time in the all-time regular-season series with each team owning 23 victories and the Ravens enjoying a 15-8 advantage at home. However, Baltimore is 10-12 against the Bengals under Harbaugh and has lost three of the last five meetings at M&T Bank Stadium.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Rookie Jaylon Ferguson will register his first sack as part of a season-best four for the Baltimore defense. The Bengals drafted Jonah Williams in the first round to be their left tackle before he underwent shoulder surgery. Incumbent left tackle Cordy Glenn has yet to play this year due to a concussion while backup Andre Smith is also out with an ankle injury. Cincinnati has already allowed 20 sacks. If the Ravens can’t get their pass rush going this week, it could be hopeless.

2. Tyler Eifert will catch his first touchdown against the Ravens since 2016. Injuries derailed what looked like a promising career for the 2013 first-round pick, but Eifert is healthy and off to a decent start. Meanwhile, the Ravens could be without Patrick Onwuasor Sunday and lost Tony Jefferson for the season last week. The Bengals would be foolish not to test the inside linebackers and whoever is playing strong safety in coverage with tight ends and running backs in the passing game.

3. Lamar Jackson will throw for 200 yards and run for 100 without a turnover. The 22-year-old is coming off his worst passing performance of the season, but it’s hardly panic time with a young quarterback making his 13th career regular-season start. The game looks to be moving a little faster for Jackson than it was over the first couple games, but the Cincinnati defense has been woeful against both the pass and run, which should leave plenty of ways for offensive coordinator Greg Roman to get his quarterback moving in the right direction again.

4. Andy Dalton will throw two interceptions to go with his 250 yards. The Bengals are averaging just 3.3 yards per carry this season and going against a Baltimore front with a healthy Brandon Williams, which will put it all on the Cincinnati quarterback’s right shoulder. Even without Green, the Bengals still have Tyler Boyd and the improving Auden Tate at the wide receiver position. The Ravens defense will bend, but Dalton will make too many mistakes playing from behind.

5. Three Ravens players will each rush for over 50 yards in a 27-14 win. Last season’s home victory over the Bengals was Jackson’s first start and the debut of a run-heavy offensive attack that took the league by storm down the stretch. Cincinnati is giving up 167.6 rushing yards per game and an unseemly 5.0 yards per carry this season. The Ravens will be more aggressive and balanced in the first half to jump in front before settling into last year’s second-half formula as Jackson, Mark Ingram, and Gus Edwards gash the Bengals on the ground and control the clock in a relatively comfortable win.

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Ravens-Browns: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 28 September 2019 by Luke Jones

There are always a few pivotal games that stand out in any season with Sunday’s tilt between the Ravens and Cleveland certainly shaping up to be one.

A win gives Baltimore a full two-game lead over every other AFC North team and drops the Browns to 1-3 with the accompanying “same old story” thoughts. However, a Ravens loss would pull Cleveland even in the division and put the winner of Monday’s Pittsburgh-Cincinnati game just one game behind.

With two more division games to immediately follow for the Ravens, Week 4 could help put them on a path to win the AFC North going away or provide a major jolt for the Browns.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens and Browns face off for the 41st time in the regular season with Baltimore holding a lopsided 30-10 advantage and a 19-3 mark under John Harbaugh. However, 10 of the last 15 meetings have been decided by a single possession, including both halves of last year’s split between the division foes.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. The Ravens will commit their first turnover of the season. Only six teams have forced fewer turnovers than Baltimore, but Harbaugh’s team is the only one in the NFL without a giveaway, which reflects Lamar Jackson’s growth in his first full year as a starter. Of course, some luck has been involved as well with the Ravens recovering both of their fumbles this season and Jackson getting away with a few passes that could have been intercepted last week. The law of averages will finally catch up to them.

2. Odell Beckham Jr. will catch a touchdown and Marlon Humphrey will register an interception matched up against each other. With Jimmy Smith out with a knee injury, Humphrey traveled with Chiefs wide receiver Sammy Watkins for much of last week’s game, a strategy that should continue against the talented Beckham. Baker Mayfield has targeted his star wideout 30 times in three games and will continue throwing his way, which will give Humphrey chances to get his hands on passes. It’s worth noting the third-year corner was limited with a hip issue this week, however.

3. Jackson will throw touchdown passes to Nick Boyle and Seth Roberts. The Browns will try to copy Kansas City’s plan to take away deep shots to Marquise Brown, which should create underneath chances for others. That reality coupled with Mark Andrews’ lingering foot issue will make it important for Jackson to look beyond his top two pass-catching targets. Boyle’s first career touchdown is long overdue, and Roberts’ playing time is trending up with Miles Boykin struggling early. Cleveland is likely to be without three starters in its secondary, which sets up for Jackson to have a good game.

4. Myles Garrett will register multiple sacks for the third time in four weeks. Harbaugh admitted his offensive line hasn’t yet seen a defensive front this talented, which will set up some intriguing battles. Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr. will have their hands full with Garrett and Olivier Vernon on the edges, but defensive tackles Sheldon Richardson and Larry Ogunjobi could also create some problems against the run and pass. Even more play-action and run-pass options than usual are in order to keep the Cleveland rush in check, but Garrett will continue his monster start to 2019.

5. Some strong running from Mark Ingram in the fourth quarter will help the Ravens preserve a tight 26-20 win. The body of work for each team so far and the home-field advantage suggest a Baltimore win, but the 1-2 Browns are already feeling pretty desperate with three more games against winning teams immediately following Sunday’s contest. The talent is still there for Cleveland and Mayfield is a better quarterback than he’s shown to be so far this season, but the likely absences of Browns cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams will keep the Ravens offense a step ahead. Baltimore will start 3-1 for the third time in the last four years and eighth time in the Harbaugh era.

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