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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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Ravens, Buffalo mostly healthy going into Sunday’s meeting

Posted on 06 December 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens are officially listing four players as questionable for Sunday’s game in Buffalo, but all are expected to play against the 9-3 Bills.

Wide receiver Marquise Brown (ankle), cornerback Marlon Humphrey (thigh), inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor (ankle), and wide receiver Seth Roberts (knee) were limited earlier in the week, but each practiced fully on Friday, eliminating any real doubt about their availability. Despite a physical battle with San Francisco last week, the Ravens have to be pleased with their current state of health, especially with a Thursday game against the New York Jets looming after the Week 14 meeting with the Bills.

Baltimore conducted a light indoor practice on Friday.

“We do feel good about where we’re at. We are healthy, and we do understand we play Thursday,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “We’re kind of taking that into consideration from a big-picture standpoint with all the different ways that we’re working. But really, the focus is just Sunday. We know what we’re going to be in for.”

The Bills are also healthy with reserve offensive tackle Ty Nsekhe being the only player on their final injury report. Nsekhe was declared out for Sunday’s game after missing practice all week with an ankle injury that’s sidelined him since Week 11.

According to Weather.com, the Sunday forecast in Buffalo calls for mostly cloudy skies and temperatures in the mid-40s with winds 15 to 25 miles per hour and only a small chance of precipitation.

Below is the final injury report of the week:

BALTIMORE
QUESTIONABLE: WR Marquise Brown (ankle), CB Marlon Humphrey (thigh), LB Patrick Onwuasor (ankle), WR Seth Roberts (knee)

BUFFALO
OUT: OT Ty Nsekhe (ankle)

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Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, right, is tackled by Los Angeles Rams defensive end Dante Fowler during the second half of an NFL football game Monday, Nov. 25, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

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NFL milestone could come exactly as Lamar Jackson prefers it

Posted on 05 December 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The records and achievements have come at such a prolific rate for Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson that they’ve almost become white noise in an MVP-caliber season.

On Wednesday, the 22-year-old became the first Ravens quarterback to ever be named AFC Offensive Player of the Month after an incredible November that included 13 touchdown passes, three touchdown runs, a 76.2 completion percentage, a 143.7 passer rating, 777 passing yards, 300 rushing yards, no turnovers, and — what he cares about most — a 4-0 record. But his next potential feat isn’t a run-of-the-mill weekly award or an obscure record you’d need the Elias Sports Bureau to confirm.

A week after surpassing Randall Cunningham and Bobby Douglass on the single-season list, Jackson needs only 63 rushing yards — a total he’s eclipsed in nine of his last 11 games — to break Michael Vick’s NFL record for most rushing yards by a quarterback in a single season. Vick rushed for 1,039 yards in 2006, but Jackson is currently on pace to run for an amazing 1,302 yards in his first full season as a starter. For context, a player rushed for 1,300 yards only eight times over the previous four NFL seasons and no Raven has reached that mark since Ray Rice (1,364) in 2011.

For a young player who’s tried to downplay weekly awards and MVP hype in favor of team-oriented goals throughout the season, this record certainly carries meaning.

“It would be an honor. Like I’ve said, Michael Vick is my favorite player,” Jackson said. “For me to do such a thing, it’s incredible. He had that record for a long time, and it will be pretty cool. But I’m focused on the win regardless.”

With winning always at the forefront of Jackson’s mind, breaking Vick’s record on the same day the Ravens can clinch a playoff spot with a win at Buffalo — and possibly their second straight AFC North division championship if Pittsburgh also loses at Arizona — would be exactly how he likes it.

Jackson has now rushed for at least 60 yards in nine straight games, the kind of consistency for which the best running backs in the league strive. That he’s continued to run at such a historic pace while also being a top 10-caliber passer — if not even better than that — is why he’s the clear favorite to be NFL MVP. It’s the stuff of video games if a game of Madden were as fun as watching the electrifying Jackson make defenders look silly in the open field.

“Lamar is a generational talent in my opinion running the ball, and a lot of people understand that,” right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. said. “People want to stop him. People want to slow him down and all those different things. People haven’t really figured out how to do it yet. I’m sure there isn’t an answer.”

There really isn’t one at this point, but Jackson would gladly take a quiet day with his legs against the Bills as long as the Ravens officially punch their ticket for January football. And that mindset is part of what makes him so special.

Cleaning up run defense

The 174 rushing yards allowed — 146 by Raheem Mostert — in last Sunday’s 20-17 win over San Francisco grabbed the Ravens’ attention preparing for Buffalo’s fifth-ranked ground attack this week.

The Bills rank 10th in the NFL in rushing efficiency while the Baltimore run defense will try to bounce back from its worst game since the Week 4 loss to Cleveland. The Ravens did limit the 49ers to just nine yards on five carries in the fourth quarter after San Francisco had much success running outside.

“There were some edge issues that we had with Jaylon [Ferguson], and it was just a different look that a rookie hasn’t seen,” defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said. “We worked on it because we know how this league is. If they see a scab scratched, they’re going to keep trying to attack it and we’ve worked on it. That’s been a point of emphasis for us going into this game. We just had too many missed tackles on that [40-yard touchdown run], and what I liked is how we bounced back in the second half.”

Should Ferguson’s Week 13 problems holding the edge carry over against Buffalo, veteran Jihad Ward seeing more snaps at outside linebacker wouldn’t be surprising.

Special moment for Humphrey

Marlon Humphrey said he’d never blocked a field goal in practice, college, or even high school, but his deflection of 49ers kicker Robbie Gould’s 51-yard attempt to end the first half proved to be a critical play in the three-point win.

The play sparked an enthusiastic embrace as part of a big day for the Baltimore special-teams units.

“We prepared, we talked about it. We said, ‘We have an opportunity,’ if we got in that situation,” special teams coach Chris Horton said. “I was really excited for him. It was our first blocked kick as a staff, so it was just a really exciting moment. And I think it was deserving of a big hug.”

Thursday’s injury report

Defensive tackle Brandon Williams was the only player on the 53-man roster not to practice on Thursday as he received a veteran day off.

Wide receiver Marquise Brown (ankle) was added to the injury report as a limited participant, which hasn’t been uncommon over the course of the season.

Below is the full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: DT Brandon Williams (non-injury)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: WR Marquise Brown (ankle), CB Marlon Humphrey (thigh), LB Patrick Onwuasor (ankle), WR Seth Roberts (knee)
FULL PARTICIPATION: TE Nick Boyle (illness), CB Brandon Carr (non-injury), RB Mark Ingram (non-injury), CB Jimmy Smith (non-injury), S Earl Thomas (non-injury)

BUFFALO
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: LB Lorenzo Alexander (non-injury), RB Frank Gore (non-injury), OT Ty Nsekhe (ankle), G Quinton Spain (illness), RB T.J. Yeldon (illness)

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Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker (9) is surrounded by teammates after kicking the winning field goal against the San Francisco 49ers in the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019, in Baltimore, Md. Ravens won 20-17. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 13 win over San Francisco

Posted on 03 December 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens winning their eighth in a row in a 20-17 final over San Francisco, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. I’ll gladly take a rematch of this one for Super Bowl LIV in Miami. The 49ers held the Baltimore offense to 4.6 yards per play, its second-lowest mark of 2019. Weather was a factor, but the San Francisco defense proved its might in its first look against this unique offense.

2. Despite covering only 34 yards, the final scoring drive lasted 12 plays and took the final 6:28 off the clock. The Ravens certainly didn’t want to be in a fourth-and-1 situation at their own 44, but their ability to monopolize the clock has to be so deflating to the opposition.

3. San Francisco’s preference to crash inside and invite Lamar Jackson to run was interesting. Coincidence or not, Jackson’s four 100-yard rushing games have come in Baltimore’s four lowest offensive scoring outputs this season. Is your best hope to take away everything else, keep hitting him, and go for a strip?

4. I’ve repeatedly mentioned his improved ball security, but Jackson not losing his first fumble of 2019 until early December is a testament to how far he’s come from his rookie season when he fumbled at least once in every start. San Francisco safety Marcell Harris simply made a great play.

5. The run defense entering Week 13 ranked third in yards per game is why we shouldn’t rely on volume stats while it ranked 19th in yards per carry allowed. It matters little when owning sizable leads, but the run defense hasn’t been particularly good this year, especially on the edges.

6. You had to remember Raheem Mostert actually being a Raven in order to call this a revenge game, but he’s carved out a nice place in San Francisco and was averaging just under 5.4 yards per carry even before his 146-yard outburst. That’s a talented running game the 49ers have.

7. A week after erasing Aaron Donald, the offensive line held likely Defensive Rookie of the Year Nick Bosa to a single tackle. The talented Jackson makes everyone’s job easier, but this group continues to get better and is playing outstanding football.

8. I wonder if John Harbaugh grows tired of questions about going for it on fourth down so frequently. Then again, he and a few others will lose that edge once other coaches decide to stop drowning in the shallow waters of risk aversion and such thinking becomes more commonplace.

9. Kyle Shanahan was smart to be aggressive against Baltimore, but his clock management at the end of the first half was poor and the fourth-and-1 pass play from the shotgun on his team’s final drive was questionable at best. He’s still done a heck of a job with the 49ers.

10. Speaking of that fourth-down play, Chris Wormley batted down the Jimmy Garoppolo pass and had a strong day as the Ravens played more 3-4 base defense than they had all season due to San Francisco’s use of heavier personnel. Wormley also registered four tackles and a half-sack.

11. Baltimore hasn’t needed to rely on special teams very often this year, but Marlon Humphrey’s blocked field goal, Sam Koch’s punt downed at the 1 by Chris Moore, and Justin Tucker’s game-winning field goal were reminders of how important that phase can still be, especially as January approaches.

12. There’s a long way to go, but the thought of the Ravens now controlling their path to securing home-field advantage throughout the playoffs less than 13 months after handing the reins to Jackson is something else. Baltimore last hosted an AFC Championship at Memorial Stadium on Jan. 3, 1971.

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Old question flipped as high-powered Ravens take on Rams

Posted on 23 November 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The question would have been flipped if the Ravens had traveled to Los Angeles to take on the eventual NFC champion Rams a year ago.

How do you make enough stops against an elite offense and produce enough touchdown drives of your own to pull off the upset?

It was the challenge going up against Peyton Manning or Tom Brady for years and most recently facing the Kansas City Chiefs. But that’s all changed in 2019 with MVP favorite Lamar Jackson and the NFL’s top-scoring offense on Baltimore’s side. The Ravens have scored at least 40 points in a game three times — they’d done it only 14 times in their previous 23 years — and have scored no fewer than 23 points in a single game all season after averaging 24.3 per contest last year.

The debate is no longer whether this Ravens offense can be “figured out” as defensive coordinators have lost plenty of sleep trying — and failing — this season. The more realistic challenge is whether an opposing unit can slow it down, something a Rams defense with Pro Bowl talent at every level might be capable of doing on Monday night.

But that brings us to the second part of the original question that’s becoming more problematic for opponents and will be for a middle-of-the-pack Rams offense on Monday. A Ravens defense that was largely a mess after the season’s opening month has arguably been the NFL’s best over the last five weeks. That improvement has made Baltimore the best team in football entering Week 12.

“Go back to the Seahawks game. They got that turnover, and they gave us a boost,” said Jackson, referencing Marcus Peters’ interception return for a touchdown late in the first half of Week 7 win. “We started off very slow, and we needed that edge from our defense. Those guys showed it, and they’ve been proving it each and every week. It just helps us, relying on those guys to stop offenses — great offenses at that.”

The Ravens scored two defensive touchdowns in that road win and held Russell Wilson and Seattle to a season-low 16 points. After the bye, Baltimore registered another defensive touchdown and held Tom Brady and New England to 20 points, the Patriots’ third-worst output of the season. But the most impressive defensive showing of the season came last Sunday when Deshaun Watson and Houston managed only a single touchdown in a 41-7 final, a rare game in which the Ravens offense started slowly with a scoreless first quarter before exploding with points on seven of its next eight drives. Such a slow start two months ago might have left Baltimore in an early hole, but the defense didn’t flinch against one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.

Jackson and the offense haven’t needed help very often this season, but this newfound balance in the midst of a six-game winning streak — the Ravens’ longest in 19 years — is what transforms a Super Bowl hopeful into the favorite to win it all. Offense may drive the modern NFL, but just ask the Patriots how important their defense was in last year’s Super Bowl after being a middling unit during the regular season.

Through the first month of the season, the Ravens looked more like a team that would have to win shootouts against elite competition, something they fell short in doing against Kansas City in Week 3. Surrendering 33 points and more than 500 yards of offense to the Chiefs was one thing, but Cleveland coming into M&T Bank Stadium the following week to score 40 and go over the 500-yard mark was the breaking point. Changes were in order for defensive coordinator Wink Martindale’s unit that had lost outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith, inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, and safety Eric Weddle in the offseason and was searching for its identity.

“Every team makes mistakes on the field. But early in the year when a guy would make a mistake, another guy didn’t just fall into that place and cover for him,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “I think it was new guys and some new spots. It took us a while to gel, but now we’ve been gelling. Yes, there have still been some same mistakes, but guys are covering for guys and we’re seeing things a little bit differently just because the communication and really knowing each other has really helped out.

“That’s really come from Wink, too. We put our foot down after those two losses and said, ‘Look, if we’re going to be a great defense, we have to do some things a little differently.'”

Dissatisfied with a young group of inside linebackers that was struggling to fill the void left by Mosley, the Ravens signed veterans Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort, moved Patrick Onwuasor from the middle back to his old weak-side position, and benched Kenny Young and Chris Board. Those changes paid immediate dividends in a road win at Pittsburgh with Bynes taking over as the “Mike” linebacker and recording an interception on the second defensive drive of the game. Bynes and Fort weren’t Pro Bowl-caliber additions, but they brought more down-to-down consistency to a position that had been highly problematic early on.

After the defense made incremental improvement against the Steelers and Cincinnati, general manager Eric DeCosta made the season-altering acquisition of Peters, sending only the benched Young and a 2020 fifth-round pick to the Rams in return. A secondary that had lost slot cornerback Tavon Young and starting safety Tony Jefferson to season-ending injuries and veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith to a multi-week knee injury now had a legitimate play-maker in Peters to begin the daunting stretch of six out of seven games against teams with winning records.

Peters wasted no time making an impact, returning a Wilson interception 67 yards for a touchdown in his first game as a Raven and following that with another interception return for a score against Cincinnati two weeks later. Baltimore knew it was getting a two-time Pro Bowl selection who had led the NFL in interceptions since the start of 2015, but Peters’ football intellect is what has resonated with teammates and coaches since he arrived in Owings Mills less than six weeks ago.

“You really don’t know until a guy gets into your locker room and into the defensive meetings of how football smart they are,” Martindale said. “He’s a savant when it comes to playing corner and routes and everything else. That’s been really refreshing because as I’ve said many times, knowledge is power in this league. You can see with his play that he has a lot of knowledge, and that’s what has jumped out the most to me.”

Peters was the marquee addition, but the in-season reset of the defense has been a collaborative effort, starting with DeCosta and the pro personnel department bringing in the aforementioned names as well as other role players such as Jihad Ward, Domata Peko, and Justin Ellis to fortify depth. Martindale and his coaching staff have done an exceptional job making strategic adjustments and bringing new players up to speed to be able to contribute immediately. And incumbents have stepped up, ranging from longtime veteran Brandon Williams playing his best football in recent memory to former reserve safety Chuck Clark stepping into a starting role and relaying calls in the defensive huddle.

The details of the path weren’t anticipated, but this Ravens defense was always built for the secondary to lead the way, which is exactly what we’ve seen in recent weeks. The addition of Peters and Smith’s return from injury have made the group as versatile as ever, evident by the amount of dime and quarter looks deployed in which Clark moves into the box and veteran cornerback Brandon Carr enters at safety.

Such sub packages allow Martindale to be more selective with his use of inside linebackers, who have fared much better as situational contributors than every-down players. It’s a far cry from the days of the Ravens having a perennial Pro Bowl selection like Ray Lewis or Mosley in the middle, but the defense being so multiple is working.

Last week, the tight coverage on the back end finally paid off for a maligned pass rush that registered a season-high seven sacks against Watson and a top-10 passing game. What the Ravens lack in standout pass rushers they’ve made up for with lock-down coverage that forces quarterbacks to hold the ball — against frequent blitzing — or attempt throws into tighter windows. It’s a defensive roster-building philosophy endorsed by the football analytics community that’s now paying off with roster tweaking and improved health in the secondary.

Opponents are now discovering they not only need to find a way to slow Jackson and the Ravens offense but also crack a confident defense growing stingier by the week. Seattle, New England, and Houston learned the hard way, and the increasingly desperate Rams face that unenviable task Monday night.

Even if the talented Los Angeles defense is able to make some stops, will Rams quarterback Jared Goff and his offense be able to do enough against the Baltimore defense for it to matter?

“It just starts to reveal who we are and what we can be if we keep doing what we’ve been doing. It’s been fun. It’s been going by like that though,” said safety Earl Thomas as he snapped his fingers. “We’ve been at it with some tough opponents, but we’ve been standing up. It’s just been one after another.

“We’ve just been proving people wrong. Let’s just keep doing it.”

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Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson throws before an NFL football game against the Indianapolis Colts, Sunday, Oct. 20, 2019, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

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Ravens-Texans: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 16 November 2019 by Luke Jones

The Ravens and Houston are both eyeing significant goals beyond leading their respective divisions entering Week 11.

That makes Sunday’s clash that much more important as the winner would hold no worse than the No. 2 spot in the AFC as well as a critical head-to-head tiebreaker approaching Thanksgiving. The urgency could be greater for the Texans, who trail Baltimore by one game and are currently scheduled to play teams .500 or better in five of their last seven contests. Houston also holds just a one-game lead over Indianapolis in the AFC South while the Ravens currently enjoy a cushion of 2 1/2 games in the AFC North.

It’s time to go on the record as these teams meet for the 10th time ever in the regular season with Baltimore holding a 7-2 advantage as well as a win in the only postseason encounter between these teams. Counting that playoff win, the Ravens are 6-2 against Houston in the John Harbaugh era.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Lamar Jackson will throw for 300 yards for the first time since Week 1. The Houston run defense is the best the Ravens have faced and is led by breakout defensive tackle D.J. Reader. That’s not to say Baltimore’s top-ranked ground game won’t be productive, but there may not be much room between the tackles, which will put more on Jackson’s legs and arm. Of course, that isn’t a bad thing as the 22-year-old is coming off his second perfect passer rating game and faces the NFL’s 29th-ranked pass defense. Jackson exceeding 35 pass attempts for the first time since Week 3 wouldn’t be surprising.

2. Deshaun Watson will become the first 300-yard passer and the third 60-yard rusher against Baltimore since Week 4. That prediction alone reflects how much the Ravens defense has improved since September, but Watson is having his own MVP-caliber season and is backed by a ground attack averaging more than 140 yards per game. The Texans won’t kill Baltimore with the run, but the expected absence of Michael Pierce could compromise Wink Martindale’s preference to use the dime, potentially leaving more linebackers on the field who won’t be able to catch Watson in space.

3. Jimmy Smith will register his first interception of 2019. You’d anticipate Marlon Humphrey traveling with All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins and we’ve all seen what Marcus Peters has done since becoming a Raven, but Smith has quietly played well since returning from the knee injury sustained in Week 1. Hopkins is obviously Watson’s go-to guy, but Kenny Stills is a viable deep threat and Houston could potentially welcome back Will Fuller from a hamstring strain. The Texans are superb using the no-huddle attack, something with which New England had success against the Ravens a couple weeks ago.

4. Tight ends will combine to catch four touchdowns in this high-scoring game. We all know how important Mark Andrews, Nick Boyle, and Hayden Hurst are to the Ravens’ passing game as the three have combined to make up 45 percent of the team’s receiving yards, but Houston tight ends Darren Fells and Jordan Akins have caught eight of Watson’s 18 touchdown passes this season, meaning you can’t sleep on them. The Ravens clearly have the superior position group here, but a key to this game will be how each defense handles the opposition’s tight ends as both blockers and receivers.

5. Justin Tucker’s late field goal will secure a 34-31 victory for the Ravens. You can’t ask for much more on paper than two MVP candidates at quarterback squaring off in what could turn into a shootout reminiscent of their classic Louisville-Clemson showdown three years ago. The Texans coming off their bye week is a red flag working against a Baltimore team that is probably in line for a bit of a market correction after making its current five-game winning streak look so easy. However, Houston has a quick turnaround for a Thursday game against AFC South rival Indianapolis, which likely exhausted some of the coaching staff’s extra time to prepare for such an unconventional Baltimore offense. In a high-profile game like this, I’ll pick the team with the best player, who is Jackson at this very moment. Of course, Watson and Hopkins could have something to say about that on Sunday afternoon.

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Ravens-Bengals: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 09 November 2019 by Luke Jones

The Ravens going from an electric prime-time home win over New England to a half-empty Paul Brown Stadium on a sleepy Sunday in November is the proverbial setup for a letdown.

John Harbaugh’s team has emerged as a legitimate Super Bowl contender over the course of its four-game winning streak, but the NFL has a way of humbling you when you get too high, making it critical for the Ravens to be focused and energized against winless Cincinnati coming off its bye.

It’s time to go on the record as these division foes face off for the 48th time in the all-time regular-season series with the Ravens owning a slight 24-23 advantage. However, Baltimore is just 1-6 in its last seven trips to Cincinnati and is seeking a season sweep for the first time since 2011.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Lamar Jackson will rush for 100 yards against the Bengals — again. I’ve often compared Jackson’s speed to that unique pitcher with a 100-mph fastball and a slider with impossible bite. You have no idea what you’re dealing with until you step in the box, and your chances are unlikely to improve until you see that pitcher a few times. The Bengals are familiar with Jackson’s speed by now, had an extra week to prepare, and won’t let him set a career high like he did with 152 rushing yards last month, but Carlos Dunlap being on the field this time around only goes so far for the NFL’s worst run defense.

2. A long punt return will set up a score for Cincinnati. Much attention this week was on Cyrus Jones and his fumble that gave new life to the Patriots, but it was a kick return for a touchdown last month that kept the Bengals competitive in a game the Ravens totally dominated statistically. With Justin Bethel gone and Chris Moore dealing with a substantial thumb injury, the Ravens could be using two different gunners on the punt team than they used in that first meeting with the Bengals. That’s notable against a special-teams group rated first in the NFL in DVOA, according to Football Outsiders.

3. The Ravens defense will register a season-high four sacks and an interception. The combined three sacks collected over the last two games don’t tell the story of a pass rush showing recent improvement as Baltimore hit Russell Wilson eight times in Week 7 and Tom Brady 10 times last Sunday night. That pressure has been dependent on blitzing, something you’d expect Wink Martindale to use even more against a rookie quarterback. Unlike Wilson and Brady, however, Ryan Finley will hold the ball longer against tight coverage, allowing the Ravens to take him down in the pocket.

4. An up-tempo drive will lead to Finley’s first NFL touchdown pass to Tyler Boyd. The Patriots totaled 302 yards in the second and third quarters using a no-huddle attack that neutralized blitzes and prevented the Ravens from using their various sub packages, an approach likely to be copied in the coming weeks. Trusting Finley to operate without a huddle for the entire game would be too much to ask, but that strategy will help create some open throws. After being held to three catches for 10 yards in the first meeting, Boyd will have some modest success against Marlon Humphrey with a score.

5. Baltimore will again play “keep away” in the fourth quarter to prevail 24-16. The Ravens haven’t won three straight games by multiple scores since 2011 and are playing on the road against a team with nothing to lose coming off its bye, factors that should make one pause — at least a second — before simply expecting an easy win against a poor opponent. That said, the Ravens will have the chance to put together a nine-minute drive in the fourth quarter for the fourth straight game, a remarkable feat that drains any semblance of life from an opponent. This one won’t be the prettiest, but part of being a great team is handling inferior teams even when you’re not at your best, especially on the road. This is the kind of game that’s given the Ravens problems in recent years, but there will be no letdown as they extend their winning streak to five in a row, their longest within a single season since 2006.

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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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Waiting on Peters, Ravens practice without seven others Wednesday

Posted on 16 October 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — With the Ravens readying for a challenging trip to Seattle to take on Russell Wilson and the Seahawks, the arrival of cornerback Marcus Peters headlined the conversation.

The two-time Pro Bowl cornerback didn’t arrive at the Ravens’ training facility in time to take part in Wednesday’s practice, but the deal sending inside linebacker Kenny Young and a 2020 fifth-round pick to the Los Angeles Rams in exchange for Peters was finalized, paving the way for his Thursday practice debut. Learning Baltimore’s complex defensive system in just a few days will pose a challenge, but head coach John Harbaugh expects Peters to play “as much as he can” against Seattle with the bye week to immediately follow.

“He’s one of the top corners in the league. He plays the way we play,” Harbaugh said. “When I say that, you know the coverages we play. You watch us every day, so he fits in really well that way and gives us another weapon back there so we can do the things we want to do defensively. That’s what I’m excited about.

“We don’t want to be hamstrung. We want to be able to play the way we want to play. He’s going to help us do that.”

Having lost slot cornerback Tavon Young for the season in August and outside cornerback Jimmy Smith for the last five games, the Ravens took a meaningful step to rebuild their depth at the position in hopes of being more flexible and dynamic in the secondary. Cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Brandon Carr played every snap in last Sunday’s win over Cincinnati, but defensive coordinator Wink Martindale had the luxury of rotating his top four corners last season to help keep players fresher and healthier, something the Ravens would like having the option of doing again.

How the secondary alignment shakes out remains to be seen, but it’s a good problem to have with six of the next seven games coming against teams .500 or better.

“Definitely excited anytime you can get a Pro Bowl corner,” said Humphrey about Peters. “Another thing I thought about was, ‘What can I learn from him?’ Twenty-four interceptions in four, five years, however many years. Whatever he’s doing, it’s working pretty well.”

The Peters trade wasn’t the only positive news for the secondary Wednesday as Smith returned to the practice field for the first time since injuring his right knee in the season opener against Miami. Wearing a thick brace, the 31-year-old went through individual drills during the portion of practice open to reporters.

Four players were absent for injury-related reasons as wide receiver Marquise Brown (ankle), inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor (ankle), cornerback Maurice Canady (hamstring), and left tackle Ronnie Stanley (knee) all sat out. Brown and Onwuasor haven’t practiced since sustaining their right ankle injuries in the Week 5 win at Pittsburgh while Canady hurt his hamstring late in Sunday’s victory over Cincinnati.

Stanley hurt his knee in the second half of the Bengals win, but he didn’t miss any snaps until the final three plays in victory formation and was initially expected to practice on a limited basis Wednesday.

“Ronnie is going to be good. He did a good job of fighting through it in the game,” said Harbaugh prior to practice. “It was painful, but it was something that we expect him to be out there to some degree today. We’ll see how it goes, and [we] expect him to be ready to go on Sunday.”

Safety Earl Thomas, running back Mark Ingram, and Carr were each given a veteran day off from practice.

The Seahawks are dealing with their own injury concerns with left tackle Duane Brown (biceps) and right guard D.J. Fluker (hamstring) both missing Wednesday’s practice after sitting out their Week 6 win at Cleveland. Outside linebacker K.J. Wright (knee) and defensive end Ziggy Ansah (ankle) also sat out with ailments.

Seattle lost tight end Will Dissly to a torn Achilles tendon against the Browns.

Below is Wednesday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: WR Marquise Brown (ankle), CB Maurice Canady (thigh), CB Brandon Carr (non-injury), RB Mark Ingram (non-injury), LB Patrick Onwuasor (ankle), OT Ronnie Stanley (knee), S Earl Thomas (non-injury)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: CB Jimmy Smith (knee)

SEATTLE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: TE Will Dissly (Achilles), OT Duane Brown (biceps), G D.J. Fluker (hamstring), S Lano Hill (elbow), S Bradley McDougald (back), LB K.J. Wright (knee), DE Ziggy Ansah (ankle)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: WR Tyler Lockett (non-injury), RB Chris Carson (non-injury)

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