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2019 Ravens training camp preview: Running backs

Posted on 10 July 2019 by Luke Jones

With training camp beginning in two weeks and the preseason opener less than a month away, we’ll look at each Ravens position group before players begin reporting to Owings Mills for the first full-squad practice on July 25.

July 9 — Cornerbacks

We continue at running back, a position that already appeared to be in good shape as the Ravens ran the ball better than any team in the NFL over the final seven weeks of the 2018 season. First-year general manager Eric DeCosta didn’t rest on those laurels, however, as Baltimore signed a two-time Pro Bowl selection to a three-year, $15 million contract in March and drafted a speedy running back in the fourth round.

Any running back carrying the ball — not to mention the offensive line — will continue to benefit from the threat of Lamar Jackson, the most explosive rushing quarterback in the NFL. It’s no secret the running game took off when Jackson replaced an injured Joe Flacco in Week 11, and that doesn’t figure to change with new coordinator Greg Roman’s past offensive systems in San Francisco and Buffalo being built around an explosive ground attack.

Offenses are all about the passing game today, so the rush-minded Ravens are certainly going against the grain with many critics skeptical about the offense’s sustainability. But they’re doing it with a unique athlete at the quarterback position and a diverse collection of running backs hoping to create matchup problems for opposing defenses otherwise built to stop the pass in the modern game.

Below is a look at several running backs who stand out for various reasons:

The Man — Mark Ingram
Skinny: Taking nothing away from Gus Edwards and his 5.2 yards per carry average last year, the Ravens didn’t sign the former New Orleans Saint to that deal to play second fiddle to anyone. That’s not to say Ingram will carry the ball 300 times or be a lock to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark with other capable runners on the roster, but the 30-year-old is an underrated receiver and averaged a career-best 3.2 yards after contact per attempt in the shadow of Alvin Kamara last season. Baltimore is expecting big things.

Old Reliable — Ingram
Skinny: Edwards’ inside rushing style should still provide a high floor with the threat of Jackson keeping the ball at the mesh point and taking off on the edge, but Ingram has more than four times as many career rushing yards (6,007) as the rest of the current running back group combined. His reputation as a strong leader in the New Orleans locker room was another selling point after the Ravens watched so many key veterans depart in the offseason.

Under Fire — Kenneth Dixon
Skinny: Dixon reminded everyone of his ability by averaging 5.6 yards per carry in six games last season, but he has played in only 19 of a possible 49 games in his career, has served two drug suspensions, and is entering the final year of his rookie deal. If that weren’t enough, the offseason additions at the position made it clear the Ravens aren’t depending on him to be a big factor. This summer will be crucial for Dixon to force his way into a major role or put himself in position for a better opportunity elsewhere.

Up-and-Comer — Justice Hill
Skinny: It’s difficult to predict just how involved Hill will be as a rookie, but the Oklahoma State product recorded the fastest 40-yard dash time among running backs at the NFL combine and could serve as a change-of-pace back to complement the more physical styles of Ingram and Edwards. Listed at 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds, Hill doesn’t have the size to project as a clear-cut every-down back, but he could be an explosive weapon for the Ravens offense, especially if he develops as a receiver out of the backfield.

Sleeper — De’Lance Turner
Skinny: The undrafted free agent from Alcorn State was active for just four games as a rookie before suffering a hamstring injury, but the Ravens promoted him over Edwards to the active roster last September, a sign of what they thought of him before the latter’s surprising late-season emergence. Depending on what happens with Dixon, Turner could push his way onto the roster as a fourth running back, especially if he shows the home-run ability he flashed last preseason on a 65-yard touchdown run.

The Rest — Gus Edwards, Tyler Ervin, Christopher Ezeala
Skinny: Dismissing Edwards would be a mistake as he appeared to be in great shape this spring and should have no shortage of motivation. It’s worth noting the Ravens have had a different leading rusher four straight seasons and the previous three all moved on by the end of the following year, showing how fleeting success can be for running backs. … Ervin, a 2016 fourth-round pick from San Jose State, had some ball-security concerns in three seasons with Houston, but his experience returning punts and kickoffs will help in his uphill battle for a roster spot.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts at conclusion of voluntary OTAs

Posted on 07 June 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens wrapping up their third and final week of voluntary organized team activities, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. DeShon Elliott made the play of OTAs with a diving interception of a deep Robert Griffin III pass. He showed impressive range sprinting from hash to sideline to make the pick. Elliott’s stuck behind Earl Thomas and Tony Jefferson, of course, but I want to watch more of that athleticism.

2. You’re never going to get the full effect of a run-based unit in non-contact practices, but the Ravens offense just didn’t make many plays in OTAs open to media and going against a defense consistently missing several veterans. Minicamp should be interesting with the full defense on the field.

3. Lamar Jackson hasn’t been as consistent as he’d like, but he threw only one interception in the three open voluntary workouts, which came on a pass to Brandon Carr that was a clear miscommunication. Learning a new system has been challenging for the entire offense, but he’s protecting the football.

4. The offense was particularly rough in red-zone drills, which reminds that Baltimore went 11-for-26 in that area with Jackson starting. Greg Roman will use plenty of play-action calls to scheme open targets between the 20s, but Jackson will need to make throws in tight windows in the red zone.

5. It’s been a quiet spring for Jaylon Ferguson, which isn’t all that surprising since his patented bull rush doesn’t really play in non-contact workouts. He’s been out of position from time to time playing the run, but we’ll better know where he is when the pads come on.

6. I’ve seen some snarky remarks about the run-heavy Ravens inviting former Navy coach and triple-option aficionado Paul Johnson to Owings Mills, but I commend a coaching staff seeking new ideas and innovation as we see the influence of the college game continue to make its way into the NFL.

7. Asked about the arrivals of Mark Ingram and Justice Hill, Gus Edwards said “nothing has really changed” and he’s still getting reps with the starters. I do expect him to continue playing an important role, but Edwards averaging 17.4 carries per game like he did from Weeks 11-17 seems unlikely.

8. Iman Marshall faces a steep climb to any defensive playing time as a rookie, but the fourth-round cornerback was impressive with a few pass breakups Thursday. Guys like Marshall, Anthony Averett, and Maurice Canady would be much higher on virtually any other corner depth chart in the league.

9. Their pursuit of Gerald McCoy made it clear the Ravens aren’t perfectly content with their interior pass rush, but Chris Wormley has been active with batted passes and pressures this spring. He will be competing with Zach Sieler to step into the old Brent Urban role.

10. Trade candidate Kaare Vedvik missed field goals from 35 and 48 yards before connecting from 58 after Sam Koch impressively handled a bad snap from rookie Matthew Orzech. I expect Vedvik to receive plenty of preseason opportunities to showcase his strong kicking leg, but consistency is key.

11. Plenty of young receivers flash this time of year before disappearing when the pads come on, but the 5-foot-11, 183-pound Sean Modster made several plays with the reserve units Thursday and was even singled out with praise from slot cornerback Tavon Young.

12. Asked about McCoy, John Harbaugh endorsed his defensive line before challenging critics to “wring their hands” and write how bad his team is. It’s fair to envision the Ravens taking a step back after such roster turnover, but I’ve seen few credible opinions suggesting they’ll be “bad.” Coaches love motivation.

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DeCosta, Ravens take swings to get up to speed in today’s NFL

Posted on 29 April 2019 by Luke Jones

First-year general manager Eric DeCosta followed through after stating more than once over the last calendar year that the Ravens needed to take more swings at the wide receiver position in the NFL draft.

Having lost five notable members of his top-ranked defense this offseason, DeCosta could have made the safe play by loading up on defensive players early while waiting until Day 3 to pluck a wide receiver or two off the board. It was the playbook often used by predecessor Ozzie Newsome — winner of two Super Bowls, mind you — to an almost maddening degree in recent years and for much of the history of the franchise.

DeCosta was quick to state it wasn’t deliberate, but the Ravens drafted two wide receivers — Oklahoma’s Marquise Brown and Notre Dame’s Miles Boykin — in the first three rounds, equaling the total selected in the opening three rounds by Newsome in the previous 11 drafts combined. Even if it was “just kind of how the board fell” as DeCosta put it, the Ravens were the first team to draft a wide receiver in the first round — one regarded as the fastest in the draft — and then traded up nine spots in the third round to take a 6-foot-4, 220-pound wideout who ran a surprising 4.42-second 40-yard dash.

The Ravens weren’t just drafting any wide receivers to aid in second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson’s development, but there was a specific trait in mind, which became even more evident when DeCosta selected Oklahoma State running back Justice Hill with his first pick on Saturday.

“One of the main common denominators is speed. It makes it tough on a defense,” said DeCosta, citing the best opposing offenses he’s watched from the press box in recent seasons. “As good as our defense has been, it’s a challenge for a team to face speed when you have multiple guys on the field at the same time who can run and make explosive plays. It’s challenging. We got a chance to see what Lamar can do this past year, and I think our collective vision for the offense is to add more guys like that to make it really challenging on the defense.”

These picks do carry substantial risk as the history of wide receivers taken with the final 10 picks of the first round in recent years hasn’t been pretty. Brown’s potential speaks for itself if you’ve watched any of his video game-like highlight videos, but we’re still talking about a 5-foot-9, 170-pound receiver currently recovering from a Lisfranc injury. Veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith has acknowledged that same injury still giving him problems years later, but the difference is how much more reliant an undersized receiver like Brown will be on that unique speed.

Boykin could carry more upside than any wide receiver the Ravens have ever drafted — admittedly a low bar — but he registered only 18 receptions before his senior season at Notre Dame, which is often a predictor of underwhelming production at the next level. Still, his physical traits and good catch rate last year were too enticing for the Ravens to overlook.

History says Brown and Boykin are more likely to both be busts than both be draft successes, but having too great a risk-averse mindset leaves one standing on the sideline wondering why the Ravens never get better at the position. Without a top-five pick — and even that isn’t always foolproof — you have to roll the dice from time to time to find dynamic play-making ability, especially if you want to maximize your investment in a first-round quarterback. And that needed to be a priority in this draft.

“Those two guys have [play-making ability] many times over,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “You have a big, fast guy (Boykin), who’s a powerful guy, who can catch and get upfield with the ball with his stride length and his stiff arm, and he goes up and makes catches. He’s a developing player. He’s kind of a younger, developing player. He’s only really had one year in the offense.

“Then, you have the smaller, faster guy (Brown) with quick feet that can make people miss in a short area, in a tight area. He can catch and run in crossing routes. But the bottom line is, these are two really fast guys that make plays, and that’s what we were looking for.”

Offensive coordinator Greg Roman couldn’t have been happier this weekend as he now has some speedy toys to use on the perimeter to complement his dynamic running game and collection of tight ends to make plays over the middle. In addition to what Brown and Boykin bring, Hill posted the fastest 40 time of all running backs at this year’s scouting combine, making him an intriguing change-of-pace option to starter Mark Ingram and the physical Gus Edwards in the backfield.

No, the draft didn’t bring some seismic shift in philosophy as the offense’s foundation will continue to be the ground game, but DeCosta’s early picks made clear the Ravens’ intentions to expand their approach beyond simply running the ball 50 times per game and minimizing Jackson’s passing opportunities. Baltimore addressed its need to get faster, something that had become more apparent watching some of the best offenses in the league in recent years.

There’s no guarantee this will all work to perfection as so much will hinge on Jackson’s development as a passer, but credit DeCosta and the Ravens for taking some risks to improve his chances of succeeding. If nothing else, it should be fun watching opponents try to combat an unconventional offensive attack.

“The idea of adding speed with Lamar is just an exciting thing to think about teams having to defend,” director of college scouting Joe Hortiz said. “I know Greg is excited about it and John is excited about it. It’s a chance to really put fear into opposing defenses. I think it really gets you excited.”

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Jackson’s development headlines pronounced transition for Ravens

Posted on 17 April 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — With former Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco practicing for the first time as a Denver Bronco more than 1,600 miles away this week, Lamar Jackson and the Ravens are in a much different place than they were a year ago.

Before taking over as the starting quarterback in the middle of the season and helping lead Baltimore to its first AFC North championship in six years, Jackson was just winding down the pre-draft process at this time last year, still unsure where his NFL journey would begin. The 22-year-old sighed in relief and laughed Tuesday as he was reminded of that “exhausting” time before former general manager Ozzie Newsome made him the 32nd overall pick of the 2018 draft.

Of course, Flacco’s departure is far from the only notable change for the Ravens, who have a new general manager in Eric DeCosta and bid farewell to former Pro Bowl selections C.J. Mosley, Eric Weddle, and Terrell Suggs as well as 2018 sack leader Za’Darius Smith and two starting wide receivers this offseason. For an idea of just how stark the transition is, five of the six players made available to media for the start of the offseason program last year are no longer with the organization.

But all eyes are on Jackson, in terms of his development entering his second season and how that impacts the revamped Ravens’ chances of repeating as division champions after so many roster changes.

“If you were to study how [players] walk into the building as a rookie and then how they walk into the building as a second-year player, you’ll see a huge difference,” safety Tony Jefferson said. “I know it was for me [in Arizona], and I know it was for a lot of the rookies last year.

“Lamar is our quarterback. It’s his team. We’re following his lead. We know how big of a leader he can be and how special he can be on the football field. We’re dependent on him, and we know he’s putting in the work that’s needed.”

There was much intrigue about Jackson’s offseason as he worked with personal quarterback coach Joshua Harris in Florida for the second straight offseason. The 6-foot-2, 212-pound quaterback said he worked five days per week and threw to a group of wide receivers that included Ravens teammate and 2018 fifth-round pick Jordan Lasley and former Louisville teammate Jaylen Smith, who projects as a late-round pick in this year’s draft.

It’s no secret Jackson needs to improve his accuracy after completing just 58.2 percent of his passes as a rookie and 57 percent over his three seasons at Louisville. His offseason focus has been on maintaining a wide base in his legs — a point of emphasis with Ravens quarterbacks coach James Urban — and throwing more out-breaking routes after he showed much more accuracy with passes over the middle of the field to his tight ends and slot receiver Willie Snead.

Asked to play meaningful games for a contending team and operating out of an offense that wasn’t fully built around him, Jackson acknowledged the breakdown of his passing mechanics and footwork that would lead to off-target throws during his rookie season. Refining those mechanics will be key in maximizing the special speed and athleticism he displays at the quarterback position.

“It had a lot to do with it,” said Jackson of his fundamentals. “I would probably get lazy, try to make things happen with just my arm, not following through with my leg, and it showed a lot. I would throw an inaccurate ball.”

With the Ravens still a few weeks away from beginning organized team activities, it’s difficult to gauge how much progress Jackson has made as a passer from last year. After saying he was throwing “a lot better” this offseason, even Jackson acknowledged the test won’t begin until OTAs and beyond. He and his teammates will also be learning a new offense as coordinator Greg Roman has rebuilt the system “from the ground up” to best suit the young quarterback.

Still, teammates have observed a more confident Jackson seemingly at ease with the great responsibility of knowing he’s the starting quarterback from the first day of voluntary workouts. Perhaps the best indicator of that demeanor is the impression he’s made with new Ravens running back Mark Ingram, who played eight seasons with Drew Brees. Ingram said Jackson has already picked his brain about the future Hall of Fame quarterback as the two shared the same flight to Baltimore this week.

“He wants to get here early, get in the film room, study,” Ingram said. “He’s a hard worker, and he’s just a good dude. He’s fun to be around. He’s one of the guys. That’s very refreshing to be able to see that from him — that he’s young, but he still is mature. He’s mature, has his mind right, wants to study film, wants to be the best quarterback he can be and the best player he can be.

“I think the sky is the limit for him.”

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Twelve Ravens thoughts ahead of annual league meetings

Posted on 22 March 2019 by Luke Jones

With NFL teams convening in Phoenix next week for the annual league meetings, I’ve offered a dozen Ravens thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Eric DeCosta has roughly $16 million in salary cap space with the draft a little over a month away. That leaves the flexibility to make another moderate signing or two while leaving the necessary space for the rookie draft class and in-season moves.

2. The Ravens were certainly interested in Justin Houston, but the two-year, $24 million deal he received from Indianapolis would have been difficult to absorb without restructuring deals or cutting another player, actions the organization prefers to avoid.

3. I still believe a $9.5 million salary and $15.85 million cap number are risky for someone who’s played more than 12 games in a season only twice in his career, but it’s clear Jimmy Smith is still valued. He remains a trade chip if they can address another need, however.

4. Robert Griffin III always seemed among the most likely of the free agents to re-sign. He hit it off with Lamar Jackson and had a nice preseason, but we’re talking about someone who was out of the league entirely in 2017. A deal made too much sense for both sides.

5. No one expected Brent Urban to sign in the opening hours of free agency, but I’m surprised there hasn’t been more interest in the 5-technique end. I figured he’d be looking at a contract similar to the four-year deal New England gave Lawrence Guy two offseasons ago.

6. With so much reported outside interest in Nick Boyle before he re-signed with the Ravens, teams wanting to add a blocking tight end should sign Maxx Williams, who would be a fraction of the price and interestingly received better blocking grades from Pro Football Focus in fewer snaps last year.

7. The lack of movement on Urban and Williams is likely complicating DeCosta’s free-agent strategy as the Ravens are currently slated to receive only one 2020 compensatory pick. There’s not a remaining unrestricted free agent who’s worth forfeiting a third-round pick to sign.

8. Much focus has been on the need for edge rushers, but Za’Darius Smith and Urban were vital parts of the inside pass rush. A healthy Willie Henry would help, but interior pressure is more important than ever with quick throws so prevalent today to try to neutralize edge defenders.

9. Jerry Rosburg’s retirement is a significant loss as his units have finished in the top five in Rick Gosselin’s revered special teams report and have ranked sixth or better in Football Outsiders’ special teams DVOA in seven straight seasons. The pressure is on successor Chris Horton.

10. With Terrell Suggs and Joe Flacco officially gone, only six players remain who were with the organization during Super Bowl XLVII and Anthony Levine was on injured reserve at the time. Only eight remain under contract from the Ravens’ last playoff win over Pittsburgh in January 2015.

11. As Mark Ingram noted after news of Griffin’s deal surfaced, the Ravens now have three Heisman Trophy winners on their current roster. That’s definitely a rare occurrence, but the late 1980s Los Angeles Raiders quickly came to mind with Marcus Allen, Tim Brown, and Bo Jackson.

12. Congratulations to former Ravens coaching intern Lori Locust for earning a full-time NFL coaching position with Tampa Bay. This interesting story describes her journey to now work for Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians, who has advocated for more diversity in coaching in recent years.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts after first wave of free agency

Posted on 14 March 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens making significant additions and enduring substantial losses in the first wave of free agency, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. I don’t think the departure of Terrell Suggs has sunk in as most expected one of the franchise’s most iconic players to return for a 17th season. While Ray Lewis had the storybook ending and Ed Reed’s free-agent exit played out more gradually, Monday’s news was so abrupt.

2. Adding 29-year-old Mark Ingram made less sense if 2019 were shaping up to be more of a transition year with an eye toward the future, but he’s a well-rounded upgrade and has lower mileage as a timeshare back. His pass protection is also an upgrade over incumbents. Solid signing.

3. Ingram’s perception suffers from an “Alvin Kamara effect” as well as the infatuation some had with signing Le’Veon Bell, but he ranks first in yards per carry (4.71) and fourth in yards after contact per attempt (2.90) among backs with 550 carries since 2014, per Pro Football Focus. He’ll help.

4. Talent and on-field production are paramount, but I couldn’t help but think Ingram’s reputation in New Orleans and Earl Thomas’ winning pedigree in Seattle carry extra weight with the level of experience and leadership leaving Owings Mills this offseason.

5. The Thomas signing certainly reinforced Baltimore’s philosophy at safety after the organization failed with early draft picks and “value” signings early in the post-Ed Reed era. The Ravens have now given out a safety contract of $26 million or more in three of the last four offseasons.

6. Those with a longer-term viewpoint may not have cared for Eric DeCosta forgoing potential third- and fifth-round compensatory picks to sign Thomas and Ingram, but you can’t hold yourself prisoner to what still amounts to lower-percentage draft choices if the right free agent is available. There’s a middle road.

7. An optimistic outlook would say Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams haven’t had enough snaps to show what they can do, but coaches would have loved to have eased Suggs’ workload last year if either were deemed worthy. Either way, these 2017 draft picks have much to prove.

8. Adding a pass rusher or two must be a top priority for a front seven that’s endured substantial losses. That said, I think a great secondary carries more value in today’s game with more quick-drop passing and run-pass options that can really neutralize edge pressure.

9. More snaps are in order for the 2018 platoon of Patrick Onwuasor and Kenny Young, but a Daryl Smith-like stopgap would make me feel better about inside linebacker rather than expecting both to fill a full-time role without a hitch. We’ll found out how much Baltimore will miss C.J. Mosley.

10. Matt Skura received an additional $533,558 — a league high — in 2018 performance-based pay, a collectively-bargained program that compensates players based upon their playing time relative to salary levels. Making a $555,000 salary last year, Skura has provided good value making 28 starts the last two seasons.

11. Wink Martindale deserves much credit for last year’s defensive success, but losing Eric Weddle, Suggs, and Mosley will challenge the coordinator who gave those veterans so much freedom to make modifications before the snap. Thomas’ arrival helps, but there will certainly be an adjustment.

12. How does a Sunday night or Monday matchup of Baker Mayfield, Odell Beckham Jr., and the Cleveland passing game against Thomas, Marlon Humphrey, and the Baltimore secondary sound? Dismissing Pittsburgh would be very unwise, but Ravens-Browns sounds pretty darn interesting now.

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Ravens-Saints: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 20 October 2018 by Luke Jones

Sunday isn’t just an enticing showdown between the top scoring offense and best scoring defense in the NFL, but it serves as a measuring stick for both the Ravens and New Orleans.

Allowing a minuscule 12.8 points per game and ranking at or near the top in virtually every notable category, the Baltimore defense has faced the fourth-easiest slate of offenses so far this season, according to Football Outsiders. Meanwhile, the Saints are scoring a whopping 36.0 points per game against the second-easiest schedule of defenses to this point.

Regardless of the competition, each group’s body of work is very impressive, but this matchup offers the opportunity to prove just how great they truly are.

It’s time to go on the record as these teams meet for just the seventh time with the Ravens holding a 5-1 advantage and a 3-1 record in Baltimore. As has been mentioned throughout the week, Drew Brees is 0-4 in his career against the Ravens, the only NFL team the future Hall of Fame quarterback hasn’t defeated over his 18 seasons.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Brees will throw his 500th and 501st career touchdowns as well as his first two interceptions of the year. The 39-year-old is off to a brilliant start with a 122.3 passer rating through five games, but he’s yet to face a defense quite like the Ravens, who are allowing just 6.0 yards per passing attempt. Marlon Humphrey’s status could be pivotal, but Jimmy Smith should be ready for a bigger workload with two games under his belt if the former can’t go. How nickel corner Tavon Young holds up defending Cameron Meredith or even Michael Thomas in the slot will be critical, but the Ravens will mix their coverages enough to force Brees into making a few more mistakes than usual.

2. Willie Snead will lead the Ravens in receptions and catch a touchdown against his former team. The slot receiver downplayed the significance of this one, but you know it would mean plenty to show well after his nightmare 2017 that followed 141 catches and 1,879 yards in the previous two seasons. Twenty of Snead’s 30 receptions — tied with Michael Crabtree for the team lead — have gone for first downs this season as he’s been exactly what Ozzie Newsome and John Harbaugh envisioned. The Saints have had significant problems at the slot cornerback position since the injury to Patrick Robinson, setting up Snead to gain some payback with his second score of the year.

3. Saints running back Alvin Kamara will score the first second-half touchdown of 2018 against Baltimore. Much was made about Kamara receiving only nine touches in Mark Ingram’s return to action two weeks ago, but the former is averaging 9.2 yards per reception, which is prime Ray Rice territory out of the backfield. The Ravens have covered running backs well so far this season, but Kamara presents a different kind of challenge who will offset the efforts of the pass rush at times and test tackling ability. Baltimore is bound to give up a post-halftime touchdown at some point, and Kamara will get loose for a score to put that impressive streak to an end.

4. Za’Darius Smith will collect another sack for one of three total for the Ravens. The key to slowing Brees and the New Orleans offense is disguise and deception, which is what Wink Martindale has so masterfully used to this point in his early tenure as defensive coordinator. Because Brees gets the ball away so quickly, you cannot count on edge rushers to get to him and need your interior linemen to hit him or at least make him move his feet to throw off his timing. Saints left guard Andrus Peat is out and right guard Larry Warford is questionable, which should make things easier for Smith, Brent Urban, and Willie Henry. The inside rushers will do just enough to make life difficult for Brees.

5. Joe Flacco and the passing game will be the difference in a 27-23 Ravens victory. The sexy story all week has understandably been about the Baltimore defense trying to slow the Saints offense, but New Orleans ranks 30th in the league in pass defense and the Ravens have been a top 10 passing attack so far this season. Talented Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore may contain one side of the field, but Flacco should be able to make plays against the rest of the New Orleans secondary for a productive day. Brees and Saints head coach Sean Payton having the bye week to try to crack the code that’s been the Ravens defense does make you take pause, but home-field advantage and a more balanced roster will make the difference in a game that has the potential to be a regular-season classic.

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Ravens-Saints: Five predictions for Monday night

Posted on 23 November 2014 by Luke Jones

Fresh off their bye week and trying to complete a 2014 sweep of the NFC South, the Ravens return to the site of Super Bowl XLVII to take on the reeling New Orleans Saints Monday night.

Baltimore hopes that a Week 11 bye coupled with the Saints’ two-game losing streak will create enough momentum to snap New Orleans’ 14-game winning streak in prime-time home games. The 4-6 Saints are trying to find some semblance of consistency in a division in which no team has made a strong claim as a viable playoff contender.

The Ravens are 5-1 in games coming off their bye week in the John Harbaugh era and will attempt to win their third road game of the season. While they were able to find success against an underwhelming Tennessee offense in Week 10, the Baltimore secondary will have its hands full against the league’s third-ranked passing attack.

Monday marks the sixth all-time meeting between these teams with the Ravens holding a 4-1 advantage. This is the first contest between these teams at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome since the 2006 season — which resulted in a 35-22 win for Baltimore — but the Ravens are obviously familiar with the surroundings after winning the Super Bowl in New Orleans two years ago.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to improve to 7-4 to keep pace in the AFC North …

1. Will Hill will draw the bulk of the assignment against Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, who will catch a touchdown and eclipse 80 receiving yards. Much was made about Cincinnati’s physicality last week in limiting the All-Pro tight end to just three catches for 29 yards, but the Ravens haven’t exactly been imposing in the back end of the defense aside from Terrence Brooks’ big hit on Tennessee’s Delanie Walker two weeks ago. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees will try to mix it up as much as possible against Graham, but Hill is the best fit with his 6-foot-1, 207-pound frame and ability in coverage. The Ravens have held tight ends in check for most of the season, but they haven’t encountered a talent like Graham and he will bounce back from a tough week against the Bengals with a strong game in Week 12.

2. Steve Smith and Marlon Brown will catch touchdowns passes against a banged-up New Orleans secondary. A week off and a meeting with an old foe he tormented year after year as a member of the Carolina Panthers are just what the doctor ordered for the 35-year-old Smith whose production has declined in recent weeks. The Saints are down to their third-string free safety and top cornerback Keenan Lewis has been dealing with a knee issue, which will lead to the veteran wideout finding the end zone for the first time since Week 6. Looking to boost their 19th-ranked red-zone offense, the Ravens will rediscover Brown as a viable option inside the 20 as the 6-foot-5 receiver will rein in a pass in the back of the end zone for his first touchdown of the 2014 season.

3. The Ravens will contain top rusher Mark Ingram, but a returning Pierre Thomas will create problems as a receiver out of the backfield. After a very slow start to his NFL career, Ingram has emerged in 2014 with a 4.5 yards per carry average to take over the feature back role for New Orleans, but the Baltimore defense has allowed only 3.4 yards per carry and won’t have an issue keeping him in check. The return of Thomas — who hasn’t played since Week 7 — will be critical for a passing game that will miss the injured Brandin Cooks, who was becoming the Saints’ second-best receiver behind Graham as a short-to-intermediate target. With the secondary providing plenty of cushion and linebackers paying close attention to wherever Graham is, the Saints will slip Thomas free out of the backfield repeatedly to move the chains.

4. C.J. Mosley and Daryl Smith will both collect sacks as the Ravens use inside blitzing to try to get to Drew Brees. Pees knows his defense must create pressure in the pocket against one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, but Saints tackles Terron Armstead and Zach Strief have been the strengths of their offensive line, meaning it won’t be a given that Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs will create enough heat. The best way to pressure Brees is up the middle where center Jonathan Goodwin and guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs have struggled in pass protection. Smith and Mosley have both been effective as A-gap blitzers, making it a good bet that the Ravens will try to ambush Brees up the middle. The strategy will pay off with each inside linebacker collecting a sack on Monday night.

5. Joe Flacco and Brees will each throw for over 250 yards, but the veteran will be a little better in a 31-23 win for New Orleans. A few weeks ago, it would have been tough to give the Ravens much of a chance in this one following the injury to Jimmy Smith on top of the Saints’ reputation for playing so well at home. But New Orleans is difficult to figure out with two straight losses at home that came after blowing out mighty Green Bay less than a month ago. On the other hand, a solid performance against the Titans isn’t enough to ease concerns that the Ravens secondary will be able to prevent the Saints from passing up and down the field all night. Flacco and the offense will put together one of their better road performances of the year, but it won’t be quite enough to put the Ravens over the top on Monday night.

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