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Twelve Ravens thoughts ahead of Super Bowl LIV

Posted on 23 January 2020 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold, right, tries to make a pass while taking a hit from Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Michael Pierce (97) during the first half of an NFL football game, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

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Want or need? Assessing Ravens position groups entering offseason

Posted on 21 January 2020 by Luke Jones

Need is a relative term when assessing the Ravens roster after a franchise-best 14-2 regular season that set all kinds of franchise and NFL records.

The sting of their divisional-round loss to Tennessee will linger for a long time, but perspective is critical when sizing up a roster that included the best offense in the league and one of the top defenses by season’s end. That’s not to say improvements aren’t in order and change isn’t inevitable with 17 Baltimore players set to become unrestricted free agents, but the Ravens would easily remain a playoff-caliber team on paper after even a ho-hum offseason of free-agent departures and only pedestrian additions. Having an MVP quarterback, an innovative offense with no unrestricted free agents of real consequence, and a great secondary will go a long way in covering up any deficiencies elsewhere.

Yes, the early playoff exit was a bitter disappointment and a missed opportunity as the AFC’s No. 1 seed, but this isn’t a roster in need of major surgery as much as some fine-tuning after having a bad game at the wrong time. It’s an enviable place when you have close to $30 million in salary cap space and a fresh batch of draft picks in April. But as John Harbaugh often likes to recite the quote attributed to former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler, “Every day you either get better or you get worse; you never stay the same.”

Below is a look at what positions the Ravens absolutely need to address or simply would like to upgrade between now and the start of the 2020 season:

Edge defender/outside linebacker — NEED

Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale made it work after the departures of Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith, but this position group remains a major concern with 2019 Pro Bowl selection Matthew Judon and depth pieces Pernell McPhee and Jihad Ward set to become free agents. Tyus Bowser took a step forward with five sacks in his third season and 2019 third-round pick Jaylon Ferguson showed growth as the year progressed, but viewing either as a definite 2020 starter would be too optimistic based on the body of work. Even if Baltimore gives Judon a blank check or the franchise tag to keep him, finding an additional impact outside linebacker is a clear objective. The Ravens blitzed more than any team in the NFL to create pressure in 2019, but more impactful four-man rushes would make this defense even more dangerous. Setting the edge against the run was also an inconsistency that was often masked by Baltimore holding so many big leads that forced opponents to abandon the ground game.

Wide receiver — WANT

I have been a broken record about Baltimore’s deficiency at wide receiver for years and noted during the Tennessee loss that another impact option would be really useful, but classifying wide receiver as a want goes back to keeping the proper perspective. You wouldn’t expect offensive coordinator Greg Roman to move away from featuring the tight ends with the success Lamar Jackson has passing to that trio between the numbers, and rookie first-round wide receiver Marquise Brown showed unique ability despite being hampered by foot and ankle issues. When you add the presence of veteran Willie Snead and the potential of 2019 third-round pick Miles Boykin, the requisite floor and upside are there — even if barely — to think the Ravens can win a Super Bowl. Still, adding a dynamic wide receiver to make plays when Baltimore trails and to have a presence outside the numbers would take Jackson and the NFL’s leading scoring offense to another level, a frightening thought for opponents.

Interior offensive line — WANT*

The asterisk is connected to eight-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda and his decision whether to return for a 14th season. If Yanda comes back, the Ravens remain in good short-term shape on the offensive line as undrafted rookie Patrick Mekari filled in respectably at center for Matt Skura, whose major knee injury makes him a question mark until at least training camp. However, Yanda’s retirement would make this a significant need with 2019 fourth-round guard Ben Powers not exactly making an impact as a rookie and the Ravens losing a Hall of Fame talent in a position group not sporting a ton of experience. You feel more confident about Skura or Mekari at center, Bradley Bozeman at left guard, and Orlando Brown Jr. at right tackle because of Yanda’s presence and elite play. Pro Bowl left tackle Ronnie Stanley may help fill the leadership void, but you just don’t replace a special player like Yanda.

Inside linebacker — NEED

This year marked only the seventh time in 24 seasons in which the Ravens didn’t receive a Pro Bowl invitation at this position, speaking to the impossible standard created by Ray Lewis and the commendable run from C.J. Mosley before his free-agent departure last March. General manager Eric DeCosta deserves credit for the in-season additions of Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort to stabilize the position, but that came after the organization underestimated the problems Patrick Onwuasor, Kenny Young, and Chris Board would have stepping into larger roles. Martindale effectively mixed and matched Bynes, Fort, and Onwuasor while often dropping safety Chuck Clark into the box in sub packages, but finding a complete three-down linebacker would decrease the likelihood of the defense getting caught with a second level that’s either too light against the run or too slow in coverage. Re-signing Bynes would certainly be on the table, but a younger every-down option would be preferable. Baltimore doesn’t need an All-Pro inside linebacker to have a great defense, but substituting so frequently was less than ideal.

Interior defensive line — NEED

Giving a big contract to Michael Pierce wouldn’t appear to be in the plans with Brandon Williams still having two years remaining on his deal and Pierce not making a strong argument for the Ravens to commit to him after weight concerns in the offseason and a solid but unspectacular 2019 campaign. Baltimore’s pursuit of six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy last spring highlighted a desire to find an interior pass rusher, but Chris Wormley and 2019 fifth-round pick Daylon Mack are the only other defensive linemen under contract for the 2020 campaign beyond the soon-to-be 31-year-old Williams. In other words, the Ravens have much work to do here to fortify their depth against the run while trying to find an inside option or two who can also get after the quarterback.

Cornerback — WANT

No one would classify cornerback as a need with 2019 Pro Bowl selections Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey both under contract and slot cornerback Tavon Young expected to be ready for the offseason program after a season-ending neck injury suffered in August. However, you can never have enough depth at this critical spot with Jimmy Smith set to become an unrestricted free agent and Brandon Carr carrying a $6 million price tag for his 2020 option and transitioning to more of a safety role this past season. A modest short-term extension could make sense for Smith, but committing substantial money to someone who will be 32 in July and has played in more than 12 games in a season only twice in nine years doesn’t sound appealing. Anthony Averett and Iman Marshall bring some upside as recent fourth-round selections, but relying on either as the first wave of depth would be risky.

Special teams — WANT

The Ravens signing unrestricted free-agent cornerback Justin Bethel in the first week of free agency last March reinforced their commitment to this phase of the game that goes beyond specialists Justin Tucker, Sam Koch, and Morgan Cox. With that in mind, Anthony Levine, Chris Moore, Brynden Trawick, Jordan Richards, and De’Anthony Thomas will all be unrestricted free agents after playing at least 120 special-teams snaps apiece for Baltimore this season. Whether re-signing a few members of that group or using resources to sign a veteran or two on the open market, the Ravens seem likely to address special teams after being underwhelming in that department — at least by their lofty standards — down the stretch.

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Yanda “to think about things” regarding future with Ravens

Posted on 17 January 2020 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judon’s free agency

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

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

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

Offensive assistants staying put

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

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

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

Pro Bowl plans

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

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

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

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Ravens-Steelers: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 29 December 2019 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Few Ravens-Steelers games over the years have meant so little — at least on Baltimore’s side.

While John Harbaugh’s team has already clinched the top seed in the AFC, a first-round bye, and home-field advantage throughout the postseason, Pittsburgh needs a win over the Ravens and a Tennessee loss in Houston as the most feasible scenario to qualify for the playoffs as the No. 6 seed.

Ravens players and coaches have said all the right things by insisting that any game against their AFC North rival carries meaning, but Harbaugh is playing it safe with his top players by officially deactivating quarterback and MVP favorite Lamar Jackson, right guard Marshal Yanda, safety Earl Thomas, defensive tackle Brandon Williams, and left tackle Ronnie Stanley. Running back Mark Ingram was already ruled out Friday as he continues to recover from a left calf injury sustained in Week 16, but the Ravens have also deactivated tight end Mark Andrews, who missed most of the practice week with a minor right ankle injury suffered in Cleveland last week.

All 46 active players were suited up and going through pre-game warmups, but you’d have to assume Harbaugh will hold out or limit the snaps for at least a few more players in addition to the seven inactives. The starting offensive line during full-team warmups included James Hurst in place of Stanley at left tackle and Parker Ehinger at right guard in place of Yanda.

Making his first NFL start in three years, veteran quarterback Robert Griffin III was the first Ravens player on the field roughly two hours prior to kickoff. The 29-year-old has seen action in six other games this season, completing 12 of 17 passes for one touchdown and one interception. Rookie Trace McSorley will serve as Griffin’s backup after being a healthy scratch for the first 15 games of the regular season.

The Steelers will be without eight-time Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey (knee) and top running back James Conner (quadriceps), who were both ruled out on Friday. Even facing a Baltimore defense at less than full strength, those are challenging absences for rookie quarterback Devlin Hodges and a struggling Pittsburgh offense to overcome.

The ugly forecast in Baltimore calls for rain and temperatures in the mid-40s with winds five to 10 miles per hour and a 100-percent chance of preciptation, according to Weather.com.

Referee Bill Vinovich and his crew will officiate Sunday’s game.

The Ravens are wearing purple jerseys with black pants while Pittsburgh dons its white tops with yellow pants.

Below are Sunday’s inactives:

BALTIMORE
QB Lamar Jackson
RB Mark Ingram
S Earl Thomas
G Marshal Yanda
OT Ronnie Stanley
TE Mark Andrews
DT Brandon Williams

PITTSBURGH
RB James Conner
C Maurkice Pouncey
CB Artie Burns
LB Tuzar Skipper
OL Chukwuma Okorafor
TE Zach Gentry
WR Amara Darboh

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Baltimore Ravens running back Gus Edwards runs for a touchdown against the Houston Texans during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 28 December 2019 by Luke Jones

A 12th win in a row would give the 2019 Ravens the first 14-2 record in franchise history, but there’s only one meaningful factor to monitor in Sunday’s regular-season finale against Pittsburgh.

That’s navigating 60 minutes of football without any injuries that could hinder a championship run.

Coaches and players have spoken all week about playing to win against their biggest rival, but John Harbaugh’s easy decision to rest MVP favorite Lamar Jackson, Marshal Yanda, Mark Ingram, Earl Thomas, and Brandon Williams tells you exactly how important this game is to Baltimore’s ultimate goal of winning the third Super Bowl in franchise history. It goes far beyond trying to eliminate an AFC North rival from playoff contention, setting additional regular-season records, or “maintaining momentum.” The threat of any top seed losing its edge or getting rusty is real, but that isn’t eliminated by simply playing Week 17 at full strength and doesn’t match any risk of losing a key player in a game lacking meaning.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens and Steelers meet for the 48th time in the regular season with Pittsburgh holding a 25-22 advantage as well as a 3-1 edge in playoff encounters. Baltimore is 13-13 against the Steelers in the Harbaugh era and seeks its first season sweep since 2015.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. The Ravens will rest or limit more starters than the aforementioned names. Harbaugh hasn’t revealed additional plans for playing time beyond what he announced Monday, but you’d assume he’ll hold out other key players or at least limit their snaps. In Week 17 of the 2012 season, he deactivated Yanda, Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, Anquan Boldin, and Bernard Pollard and limited the likes of Ed Reed, Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Matt Birk, Torrey Smith, and Dennis Pitta to 16 or fewer snaps. Based on that as well as past preseasons, the Ravens can navigate a game with roughly 40 players.

2. Baltimore will set a new NFL record for rushing yards in a 16-game season. We saw Jackson’s impact on the run game from the moment he took the starting reins last year, so it’ll be interesting to see how productive the group is with Robert Griffin III at quarterback. The Ravens need 93 rushing yards to break the 1978 New England Patriots’ mark of 3,165, but they’re facing a Pittsburgh defense ranking third in the NFL at 3.7 yards per carry allowed. The volume of carries should still be there to set the record even if the Ravens average well below their season mark of 5.6 yards per rush.

3. JuJu Smith-Schuster will catch only his fourth touchdown of 2019. It was a quiet return for Smith-Schuster last week after a four-game absence due to a knee injury, but he provides a much-needed inside target for rookie quarterback Devlin Hodges and a sputtering Pittsburgh offense. Should the Ravens choose to limit Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey’s playing time, there isn’t an attractive backup option to play in the slot, a position Baltimore struggled to fill early in the year after Tavon Young was lost for the season in August. That’s even more reason not to play Humphrey too much in this game.

4. Justin Tucker will make his longest field goal of the season. We know a record-setting offense has marginalized the kicking game this year, but it’s mind-blowing to think the best in the NFL and three-time Pro Bowl selection hasn’t even attempted a field goal from 50 yards or more since Week 2. Tucker has just one missed field goal — and two unsuccessful extra points — this season, but Sunday will feel like a throwback performance with the Ravens relying more on field position and the kicking game. Some rain could make it tricky, but Tucker will connect on a field goal from longer than 51 yards.

5. The Ravens will be held under 20 points for the first time all season in a 17-16 loss. I haven’t picked against the Ravens since October and don’t plan to again in January, but this game simply doesn’t matter and can only harm their Super Bowl aspirations in the event of a notable injury or two. Baltimore winning with backups against an ordinary Steelers team wouldn’t surprise me by any means, but expecting the same intensity and brand of Ravens football — even if it’s against Pittsburgh — with Jackson and other top players in street clothes on the sideline is a lot to ask in a game in which the opponent has everything to play for. It will be a competitive game with points at a premium, but we’ll come away reminded why Jackson is the easy choice as the league MVP this season.

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Ravens to rest Jackson, other veterans for regular-season finale

Posted on 23 December 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — After clinching the No. 1 seed in the AFC, the Ravens will keep the expected NFL MVP and several key veterans out of harm’s way in the regular-season finale against Pittsburgh.

Head coach John Harbaugh announced quarterback Lamar Jackson, running back Mark Ingram, right guard Marshal Yanda, safety Earl Thomas, and defensive tackle Brandon Williams are among those who won’t play against the Steelers on Sunday. At least a couple others are expected to be added to that list this week as Ravens players return to the team facility on Christmas Eve.

With Jackson having already locked up the MVP award in the eyes of most as the only quarterback in NFL history to throw for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in a single season, there was just no compelling upside to playing him compared to exposing him to even the slightest risk of an injury. For what it’s worth, more than three weeks lapsed from the 22-year-old’s final preseason snaps until Week 1 when he threw five touchdowns and produced a perfect passer rating.

Acknowledging the balance between resting players and keeping them sharp for what the organization hopes will be a long postseason run next month, Harbaugh is choosing not to expose his best players to even a small chance of injury in a game carrying no tangible value to Baltimore’s Super Bowl aspirations. The 12th-year head coach has never been in this position before, but he rested multiple starters in Week 17 of the 2012 season after the Ravens had clinched the AFC North division championship the previous week and had only a small chance to move up from the fourth spot to the No. 3 seed in the playoff field.

“I talked to a few guys on the plane. Marshal was the main guy that I had some time talking to about it,” Harbaugh said. “I feel confident that everybody is on board. I talked to the coordinators, assistant head coach [David Culley], and [director of football research] Scott Cohen was involved in that today.

“It was pretty straight forward. It’s not really hard. It’s not a hard decision really if you really sit back on it and think about it. It’s a solid decision.”

Veteran backup Robert Griffin III will start at quarterback against the Steelers, but Harbaugh left open the possibility of rookie sixth-round pick Trace McSorley also seeing playing time.

Though many pundits and fans are referring to Sunday’s game as a glorified preseason game from the Ravens’ perspective, Harbaugh doesn’t have the luxury of a 90-man roster to navigate 60 minutes of play like he does in August. With only seven players deactivated for games, many veterans will still see action, but you’d expect workloads to be eased for select starters.

“We’re very healthy, so that does bode well,” said Harbaugh, who added that the Ravens will play to win with all players active against the playoff-hopeful Steelers. “It will be an opportunity for some guys to play who have been inactive, so that’s a big plus for us. It gives some guys some experience, and we’ll just roll with it.”

Harbaugh acknowledged there being merit to the other side of the debate suggesting a team already holding a first-round bye is in danger of losing its edge with too long a layoff from live-game action. It’s a fair concern that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy without taking the proper measures, but the practice schedule, mental preparation, and how players take care of their bodies over the next couple weeks carry more weight than playing an arbitrary numbers of snaps — and risking injury — in an inconsequential game that’s still two full weeks before the divisional round. In other words, there’s still much time to collect rust if you’re not managing those other variables wisely, no matter how you handle the Week 17 game itself.

Harbaugh confirmed all healthy players will practice this week and during the bye.

“Our goal is to be the very best football team we can become for that divisional game,” Harbaugh said. “We have a number of practices between now and then, and we have to make the most of every practice, every rep, every meeting, everything we do to be a much better football team than we are right now.”

If the Ravens were unsure how to handle the regular-season finale, seeing Ingram exit with a left calf injury early in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s win in Cleveland probably ended the debate.

Harbaugh described the results of Ingram’s MRI as “good news” after the Pro Bowl running back suffered the non-contact injury, but his status will be one of the major questions going into the postseason. Second-year running back Gus Edwards and rookie Justice Hill will handle greater workloads against Pittsburgh, but the Ravens remain hopeful that Ingram will be ready for the second weekend in January.

“He has a mild-to-moderate calf strain, so he won’t play this week,” Harbaugh said. “He probably wouldn’t play this week no matter what the circumstance was with that calf strain. We’d be looking for him to be ready in two weeks, so we’ll see how that goes going forward.”

2020 opponents revealed

With first place in each of the four AFC divisions now decided, the Ravens’ slate of 2020 opponents has been finalized.

Already scheduled to play the entire AFC South and NFC East divisions next season, Baltimore officially learned it will host AFC West champion Kansas City and travel to AFC East-winning New England.

HOME: Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Jacksonville, Tennessee, Dallas, New York Giants, Kansas City

AWAY: Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Houston, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Washington, New England

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

Posted on 19 December 2019 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

Nothing more, nothing less.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yanda strengthens Canton case

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

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

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

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

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

Special teams mishaps

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

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

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

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

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Ravens sport clean bill of health ahead of Sunday’s trip to Cleveland

Posted on 19 December 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILS, Md. — The Ravens haven’t been immune to injuries over the course of 2019, but they couldn’t ask for a much better bill of health entering the penultimate week of the regular season.

Needing a win in Cleveland to clinch a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, Baltimore hasn’t had a single player absent or limited during practice for a health-related reason through the week’s first two practices. Pro Bowl left tackle Ronnie Stanley and reserve inside linebacker Chris Board were full participants for the second straight day Thursday after missing last week’s 42-21 win over the New York Jets due to concussions sustained in Week 14.

Navigating their way through a short week for their 10th straight victory last Thursday, the Ravens had the reward of some extra rest last weekend, something that wasn’t taken for granted by even the best team in the NFL this late in the season.

“It’s definitely a positive for us, for any team,” head coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “It’s a plus to get a little bit of time to get healed up and get rested up a little bit. We’ll have to come back and get sharp and make sure we practice really well and just get ready to play the game on Sunday. But I would say all in all, it’s a benefit.”

Defensive tackle Brandon Williams was the only Ravens player not on the practice field Thursday as he received a veteran day off.

The 6-8 Browns couldn’t say the same about their injury outlook as starting defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson (back) and starting center JC Tretter (knee) were again absent from practice on Thursday. Both played in last Sunday’s loss at Arizona and appear likely to play against the Ravens.

Nine Cleveland players were listed as limited participants on Thursday, a list including starting wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. (groin) and Jarvis Landry (hip), starting right tackle Chris Hubbard (knee), and top cornerback Denzel Ward (ankle). Starting defensive end Olivier Vernon (knee) was also limited and has missed five of the last six games.

Below is Thursday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: DT Brandon Williams (non-injury)
FULL PARTICIPATION: LB Chris Board (concussion), RB Mark Ingram (non-injury), CB Jimmy Smith (non-injury), OT Ronnie Stanley (concussion), S Earl Thomas (non-injury), G Marshal Yanda (non-injury)

CLEVELAND
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: DT Sheldon Richardson (back), C JC Tretter (knee)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: WR Odell Beckham Jr. (groin), LB Tae Davis (knee), RB Dontrell Hilliard (neck), OT Chris Hubbard (knee), OT Kendall Lamm (knee), WR Jarvis Landry (hip), S Eric Murray (knee), DE Olivier Vernon (knee), CB Denzel Ward (ankle)
FULL PARTICIPATION: DE Porter Gustin (neck)

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Jackson headlines list of record 12 Ravens selections for Pro Bowl

Posted on 17 December 2019 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson throws a pass against the New York Jets during the first half of an NFL football game, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

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Electric passing efficiency driving Lamar Jackson to historic MVP season

Posted on 14 December 2019 by Luke Jones

The post-game question about the record made Lamar Jackson’s eyes grow wide as he then pumped his fist, but it wasn’t the same accomplishment everyone else was talking about on Thursday night.

The Ravens quarterback made clear he would always “cherish” breaking the NFL single-season quarterback rushing record held by Michael Vick. However, learning he had tied Vinny Testaverde’s franchise-best mark for touchdown passes in a season prompted an enthusiastic reaction from the man determined to be known as much more than just a running quarterback.

“Throwing them. No running records — besides the little rushing record,” said Jackson as he smiled. “But throwing, that’s amazing.”

His unparalleled athleticism at the quarterback position and ability to make NFL defenders look like awkward adolescents in the open field take center stage on SportsCenter and social media, but you really do believe Jackson when he tells you he’d rather throw than run. And his passing efficiency has cemented his status as the clear-cut favorite to win the league’s most valuable player award. The five-touchdown performance in the 42-21 win over the New York Jets gave Jackson seven more touchdown throws than any quarterback in the NFL despite 22 others having more passing attempts even before the remainder of Week 15 play on Sunday and Monday.

We know the success of Baltimore’s top-ranked scoring offense begins with a rushing attack that’s already shattered the old franchise record set by the 2003 team that featured 2,000-yard rusher Jamal Lewis, but Jackson has eaten defenses alive in the red zone, throwing 22 touchdowns without an interception for a 110.8 passer rating in that area. Entering Sunday, the Ravens had attempted fewer passes than all but three other teams this season, but Jackson has been superb when throwing, improving his completion percentage from 58.2 as a rookie to 66.2 percent (11th in the NFL) this season.

Tight end Mark Andrews and rookie wide receiver Marquise Brown are his top targets with a combined 15 touchdown receptions, but Jackson threw a touchdown to five different players against the Jets on Thursday, meaning eight different Ravens have now caught at least two touchdowns this season. The volume of targets may not be there for a group more frequently asked to do the dirty work of blocking in the run game, but the connections certainly are when called upon.

“That’s just the chemistry and hard work. We’re taking practice like it’s a game,” Jackson said. “That’s one thing I had to work on individually by myself. Because our guys work so hard, I’ve been wanting to throw dimes to them and make sure to make their job a lot easier catching them in stride, and they just help me out by catching the ball and doing what they do.”

The combination of Jackson’s explosive running and passing efficiency is unlike anything we’ve seen, already dating the predictable comparisons to Vick as the former has already thrown more touchdowns and completed a higher percentage of passes in a season than his favorite player did at any point in his career. Ironically, this 22-year-old quarterback and run-first offense that many say are changing the game are doing things you have to go back generations to find comparisons.

Jackson has 33 touchdown passes this season in 370 passing attempts, 179 fewer than Testaverde in 1996 and 142 fewer throws than Jameis Winston with his 26 touchdowns and 23 interceptions entering Week 15. The only other quarterbacks to throw 33 or more touchdowns in 370 or fewer pass attempts in a season were Y.A. Tittle in 1963 and George Blanda in 1961, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.

What other quarterbacks have thrown 30 or more touchdowns in a season while passing for fewer than 3,000 yards? Just Len Dawson in 1964 and Johnny Unitas in 1959 — the first of three MVP seasons for the Baltimore legend.

Dating back to 1950, a quarterback has thrown five or more touchdowns in 23 or fewer pass attempts in a game only 31 times. Only nine have occurred in the 21st century with Jackson responsible for three this season. Only two other quarterbacks — Eddie LeBaron and Craig Morton — had even done that twice in their entire careers.

Such numbers shouldn’t be interpreted as perfect comparisons across eras of football with very different rules, but they do make you think back to John Harbaugh’s offseason comments about an offensive “revolution” and using offensive concepts not seen in the NFL in decades. The combination of an offense designed perfectly for its quarterback’s strengths and Jackson’s unique skills and markedly improved accuracy have resulted in the Ravens sporting the league’s most devastating offense.

It’s a perfect marriage that’s just getting started, a terrifying thought for the rest of the league. Jackson understandably garners more attention for his exhilarating rushing ability, but the steps he’s already taken as a passer — one who won’t turn 23 until next month — should dismiss the questions about his career longevity beyond the usual injury risk any NFL player assumes.

Jackson may no longer be a 1,000-yard rusher in three years, five years, or a decade from now, but the passing acumen he’s already displaying makes you more and more confident that he won’t need to be.

He’s the deserved MVP and only getting better for the NFL’s best team riding a 10-game winning streak and needing one more victory to lock up home-field advantage throughout the postseason.

“It starts with the quarterback playing well. He’s played well for a long time now,” said 13th-year guard and seven-time Pro Bowl selection Marshal Yanda. “As far as [him] being a young player, you would think — I’m thinking in the back of my mind — sooner or later he’s going to have a young, second-year growing-pains game, and the kid just keeps playing winning football.”

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