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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 5 win in Pittsburgh

Posted on 08 October 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens snapping their two-game losing streak with a 26-23 overtime win in Pittsburgh, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Sunday’s game was far from “must-win” territory, but the Ravens came away with an “exhale” victory. It wasn’t pretty and real concerns persist, but you never take a victory at Heinz Field for granted, no matter the Steelers quarterback. We’ve seen backups win in this rivalry before.

2. Marlon Humphrey made the play of the game, but I’m impressed by his willingness to point out when he can be better, highlighting breakdowns and bad plays like his failed strip of JuJu Smith-Schuster earlier in the game. The 23-year-old wants to be the NFL’s best, and he’s getting closer.

3. Justin Tucker receives more publicity than any kicker in the league, but it still doesn’t do justice to his brilliance. Not only did he make tying and winning kicks in the open end of a stadium notoriously tough on kickers, but his kickoffs gave Pittsburgh poor field position all day.

4. Josh Bynes hadn’t played in a game since November and hadn’t been with a team since being cut by Arizona in March before signing Wednesday, starting, playing 43 snaps, and recording five tackles and an interception. That is remarkable and speaks to his drive to be ready for that opportunity.

5. That sequence of events also reflects how desperate the Ravens had become at inside linebacker. It’s telling that Kenny Young was inactive and Chris Board played only one defensive snap, but moving Patrick Onwuasor from the “Mike” spot back to the weak-side position was also a plus.

6. Lamar Jackson had his worst passing performance of the season, but his 14 carries for 70 yards reminded why you like his skill set even when he’s not succeeding from the pocket. He needs to be better, but his legs were vital as Baltimore couldn’t run between the tackles.

7. Was it any coincidence the offense fizzled from the time Marquise Brown left the game with an ankle issue? The ground game is paramount, but this passing attack isn’t very potent when Brown or Mark Andrews is limited physically. Both were banged up by the end of Sunday’s game.

8. The last drive of the first half was embarrassing. Starting at their 11 with 1:36 to go and two timeouts, the Ravens ran twice to move the chains, huddled with the clock running, took a sack, huddled again, and then Jackson was picked. Did the coaches leave the field early?

9. I don’t believe Earl Thomas had malicious intent with his helmet-to-chin hit on Mason Rudolph, but he appeared to be caught between trying to disrupt the passing lane and hitting the quarterback, which resulted in him launching into Rudolph. That was a disturbing scene.

10. The offensive line struggled against the Pittsburgh front, but Ronnie Stanley continues to have a Pro Bowl-caliber season with Pro Football Focus grading him first in pass blocking and fifth overall among offensive tackles. He’s going to be commanding a ton of money in the near future.

11. Maurice Canady went from being waived at the end of the preseason to starting and playing very well in Pittsburgh. His performance has been crucial, especially with second-year cornerback Anthony Averett disappointing in his opportunity to fill in for the injured Jimmy Smith.

12. Truthfully, I’m not yet sure how good the Ravens are when the teams they’ve defeated have a combined two wins, but Baltimore has the same number of victories as the rest of the AFC North combined. That always helps as a team tries to address its problems.

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 05 October 2019 by Luke Jones

The sizzle in this AFC North rivalry is currently lacking, but that doesn’t mean the Ravens and Pittsburgh aren’t both eager for a victory to reverse their early-season fortunes.

A victory would allow Baltimore to exhale after a two-game losing streak and would keep John Harbaugh’s team at least tied for first place in the division with two games to go until the Week 8 bye. The Steelers are trying to avoid falling to 1-4, a record from which only 14 teams since 1970 have rebounded to make the playoffs.

It’s time to go on the record as these division rivals meet for the 51st time — counting the postseason — with Pittsburgh owning a 25-21 advantage in the regular season and a 3-1 edge in the playoffs. Including the playoffs, the Ravens are 12-13 against the Steelers in the Harbaugh era with 18 of those games decided by a single score.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Earl Thomas will come away with his second interception of the season. The truth is somewhere in between regarding Thomas’ start as he’s been neither dynamic nor the problem some have suggested him to be. Hearing him admit he’s still adjusting to playing different coverages from what he did in Seattle is disconcerting, but it’s not as though he’s been directly responsible for most of the big plays the Ravens have surrendered. The 30-year-old does need to be a bigger part of the solution, and a pick of second-year quarterback Mason Rudolph will be a step in the right direction.

2. James Conner and Jaylen Samuels will each score a touchdown. The Steelers have averaged just 3.4 yards per carry, so finding running room against a front expecting to have Brandon Williams back won’t be easy. However, Conner and Samuels caught a combined 16 passes for 140 yards and a touchdown in Week 4 and will be facing a Baltimore linebacker group that’s been a total liability in coverage. As they did against Cincinnati, the Steelers will use gadget plays, screens, and short passes to keep life simple for Rudolph. The Ravens have struggled against those kinds of plays.

3. Lamar Jackson will rush for 75 yards and throw for two touchdowns. The Pittsburgh defense is moving in a better direction after a rough start, but the Steelers haven’t yet encountered the full Jackson experience, which is difficult for anyone to prepare for. We’ll see a more aggressive Jackson running to the edges like he did in Week 2, which will force Pittsburgh’s secondary to creep forward and create chances for the second-year quarterback to throw the ball down the field. The Ravens would love to get Marquise Brown going again after he had a total of six catches for 71 yards over the last two games.

4. Steelers defensive linemen Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt will combine for two sacks and force a fumble. One of the reasons why Jackson will run more frequently to the edges is to offset the advantage Pittsburgh has inside, especially with center Matt Skura questionable to play due to a knee injury. The Ravens did a solid job against the Cleveland front last week, but the Steelers’ interior line is a handful with Heyward and Tuitt off to great starts this season. Baltimore’s top-ranked rush offense will be seeing its biggest test inside the tackles so far this season.

5. The Baltimore defense will regroup — somewhat — in a 24-20 win over Pittsburgh. There are too many problems to expect the Ravens defense to just snap its fingers and be fine, but I still believe that group is better than the bottom-10 unit its shown to be so far this season. There will still be mistakes and the Steelers will throw plenty of bells and whistles at them, but Rudolph doesn’t appear to be capable yet of exploiting the Ravens’ woes like Patrick Mahomes and Baker Mayfield did. Jackson and the offense will play an efficient game against a defense better than the numbers suggest, and the Ravens will escape Heinz Field with a victory for the second straight year.

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New chapter upon us in old Ravens-Steelers rivalry

Posted on 04 October 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Lamar Jackson wasn’t even born yet when the Ravens played the Pittsburgh Steelers for the first time, reminding how long this rivalry has now existed.

It transformed from early Pittsburgh dominance to hostile nastiness to begrudging respect in quite possibly the NFL’s best rivalry over the last two decades. The annual meetings have become downright civil compared to the days of Ray Lewis, Chris McAlister, Hines Ward, Joey Porter, and so many others exchanging barbs off the field and violent hits on it.

If we’re being honest, the rivalry has aged in recent years with the 2016 Christmas Day game — a painful memory for Baltimore — being the most notable encounter. That’s not to say the games are any less competitive — 11 of the last 16 overall meetings have been decided by one score — but this year marks the first time since 2006 that neither Baltimore-Pittsburgh affair was scheduled for prime time if we’re including that nationally-televised Christmas meeting three years ago. Sunday’s encounter is the first time since 2013 these teams will meet in Pittsburgh for a run-of-the-mill afternoon game.

This AFC North rivalry inevitably cooled with the retirements of legends such as Lewis, Ward, Ed Reed, and Troy Polamalu, but this offseason brought the departures of Terrell Suggs, Joe Flacco, Antonio Brown, and Le’Veon Bell from their respective teams. Sunday will mark the first Ravens-Steelers game not including any of Suggs, Flacco, or Ben Roethlisberger — who’s out for the year with an elbow injury — since the final game of the 2002 season when Jeff Blake and Tommy Maddox were the quarterbacks and Todd Heap and Amos Zereoue were the standout performers of the day.

Only nine current Ravens were with the organization the last time these teams met in the playoffs five years ago, but one of them — outside linebacker Pernell McPhee in his second stint with Baltimore — offered what felt like a relic this week compared to the tame, respect-filled talk we’ve heard from both sides in recent years.

“We hate each other. I know for sure we hate them. We hate them,” said McPhee, who last played in a Ravens-Steelers game in the 2014 playoffs. “We respect them as men, but we really hate them.

“That’s just how it is. That’s the blood between the teams. It’s like God versus the Devil.”

Those words brought back plenty of fond memories, but the rivalry is now in need of a spark and a new chapter as much as each team could use a win with the Steelers trying to regroup from an 0-3 start and the Ravens aiming to snap their two-game losing streak. We’ve made mention of the “Bizarro” Ravens with a top-shelf offense and a bottom-10 defense so far, but the once-elite Steelers offense is suddenly counting on second-year quarterback Mason Rudolph to lead a group short on play-making ability with Bell now a New York Jet and Brown somewhere in his own little world.

This is when we come back to Jackson, who played a combined 22 snaps as a rookie in last season’s split against the Steelers. He’s rapidly become the face of the franchise since the last time Baltimore played Pittsburgh last November, Flacco’s final start as a Raven. Jackson’s comments on the rivalry and his first start at Heinz Field this week were both refreshing and a reminder of how much things have changed with the influx of youth on both sides.

“They play that little song (“Renegade”), and they wave their little flags and stuff with the little towels around,” Jackson said. “It was pretty dope. I enjoyed it. I did, I really did.”

Off to a terrific start to 2019 with 10 touchdown passes, a 109.4 passer rating, and a combined 1,348 yards through the air and on the ground, Jackson has his first real chance to make his mark against the Steelers after playing little more than a cameo role last season. With their defense reeling after giving up 73 points and 1,033 yards over the last two games, the Ravens need their 22-year-old quarterback to lead the way and give the Steelers fits for the first of what they hope will be many times in the coming years.

There’s no better candidate on either side to become the next star in Ravens-Steelers lore. Baltimore has the overwhelming advantage at the most important position on the field, but we’ve seen the likes of Charlie Batch and Ryan Mallett win games against Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks in this rivalry.

Nothing is guaranteed and you throw out the numbers for this one, but the Ravens need a win to get that “throw-up taste” out of their mouths from last week as McPhee described it. They can drop the Steelers to 1-4 and strengthen the notion of the AFC North being a two-team race with Cleveland. However, a Pittsburgh win gives Mike Tomlin’s team even more life and leaves us wondering if the Ravens are all that good at all.

Even if the rivalry isn’t what it used to be — at least for now — it’s time for Jackson and so many others stepping into larger roles on both sides of the ball to find out what Ravens-Steelers is all about.

“They’re becoming Ravens,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “One of the things that was said in the meeting [Wednesday] is, ‘You’re not a Raven until you beat the Steelers.’ Well, we have some young guys that still need to beat the Steelers.”

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 2018 draft

Posted on 03 May 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens now finished with the draft and looking ahead to rookie minicamp this weekend, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. An organization that’s struggled to remain relevant nationally in recent years will have plenty of buzz as the Lamar Jackson watch begins. This will easily be the most interesting spring and preseason the Ravens have had in a long time.

2. Joe Flacco declining to speak to local reporters Saturday was much ado about nothing, but the Ravens created this situation and need to be prepared to handle it. Every national reporter coming through Owings Mills this year will be asking the veteran about the quarterback of the future.

3. I’m already seeing the annual overhype about the receiver competition as the Ravens added three veterans who combined for 87 catches for 1,009 yards last year and can point to Demetrius Williams as their greatest fourth- or fifth-round success story at the position in the 21st century. Pump the brakes.

4. With that said, I do like the diversity in skills and physical traits of the pass catchers added by general manager Ozzie Newsome. Even the surest thing, Michael Crabtree, coming off a down season makes you nervous, but there is enough potential and upside in this group to be hopeful.

5. Willie Snead was impressive in his press conference earlier this week, taking accountability for his difficult 2017 season without pointing any fingers for his disappearance in the New Orleans offense. Now we’ll find out if he was a byproduct of Drew Brees and Sean Payton or a productive slot option.

6. Drafting Anthony Averett gave Baltimore 11 corners on the preseason roster with as many as seven of those held in high regard. Health will factor heavily into the makeup of this group, of course, but the possibility of a late-summer trade to address another position of need still seems plausible.

7. Tight ends frequently struggle in their rookie season and his age could limit his overall ceiling, but I have little doubt that Hayden Hurst will be as good as he’s capable of being after reading this terrific piece by Bleacher Report’s Dan Pompei. He’s already dealt with failure admirably.

8. Since many have cited Marty Mornhinweg’s work with Michael Vick in Philadelphia to endorse the first-round selection of Jackson, I’ll note that Flacco’s numbers began declining as soon as Mornhinweg took over as his quarterbacks coach the year after arguably the best regular season of his career.

9. I’m curious to see how DeShon Elliott fits at the NFL level as Pro Football Focus views him as a free safety while others envision him playing more in the box. The Ravens hitting on a late-round safety after using so many resources at the position recently would be helpful.

10. Jordan Lasley is the kind of prospect on which a team should take a chance in the fifth round. His off-field issues were far from egregious, but the key will be whether his issues with drops are correctable. I still like the pick at a position lacking any long-term answers.

11. Considering their impeccable track record with undrafted free agents, the Ravens tying a franchise record with 12 picks in the draft was surprising. You just hope they didn’t miss out on some quality players in the name of adding so much quantity in the later rounds.

12. With Baker Mayfield going first overall to Cleveland, Jackson being the final pick of the first round, and first-round hopeful Mason Rudolph sliding to Pittsburgh in the third round, ESPN would have a good “30 for 30” topic if the quarterback future of the AFC North comes to fruition.

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