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Ravens defense looking like good case study for coverage-pressure debate

Posted on 13 May 2019 by Luke Jones

With veteran pass rusher and free-agent target Ezekiel Ansah joining Seattle last week, the Ravens defense faces a likely reality with organized team activities set to begin next week.

Barring something completely unforeseen, general manager Eric DeCosta probably isn’t upgrading the current group of pass rushers to a substantial degree. That’s not to say a veteran won’t still be added to the mix as former Los Angeles Ram Matt Longacre reportedly visited the Ravens Monday, but the quality of edge defenders still on the market isn’t dramatically different from the in-house options behind veteran Matt Judon that include third-round rookie Jaylon Ferguson and 2017 Day 2 picks Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams.

It’s not as though DeCosta hasn’t tried to add a veteran pass rusher after the departures of 2018 sacks leader Za’Darius Smith and the franchise’s all-time sacks leader in Terrell Suggs, but the short-term contracts given to Ansah and Justin Houston — who signed with Indianapolis — were a bit rich for a team trying to maintain an optimal salary-cap situation for 2020 and beyond. Few would argue with the decisions not to pay Smith and Suggs what they ultimately received from their new teams, but the defense is still losing just over 40 percent of its sack production from last year when you include the two combined sacks from fellow departures C.J. Mosley, Eric Weddle, and Brent Urban.

Of course, DeCosta hasn’t just stood pat defensively after losing those key players as his first major free-agent signing as general manager was six-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas to a four-year, $55 million contract. Injuries limited the 30-year-old to just 29 games in his final three seasons with the Seahawks, but Thomas represents a substantial upgrade — at least on paper — from the 34-year-old Weddle, who was using his intellect to overcome his physical limitations more than ever last season.

That upgrade to a secondary already viewed as one of the NFL’s best and the current concerns about the pass rush spark a fascinating question, one the football analytics community has debated at length in recent years.

Which is more valuable: coverage or pass rush?

The phrase “you win in the trenches” being drilled into ours heads for decades may have you laughing at the very notion of pass coverage being more important than pressure, but that’s a growing stance in today’s pass-happy NFL in which quarterbacks are getting rid of the ball more quickly and teams are using more play-action calls to neutralize defensive fronts. To be clear, pressure remains very important as the two feed off each other — you want both in a perfect world — but an edge rusher getting stonewalled by an offensive tackle typically brings less potential consequence than a defensive back faltering for even a fraction of a second in coverage on a given pass play.

Asked about which was more precious earlier this offseason, head coach John Harbaugh offered an answer seemingly agreeing with the analytics community’s position of coverage being more valuable than pass rush. It reflects Baltimore’s greatest defensive strength going into OTAs.

“I think coverage in the back end because I think you can create pressure,” Harbaugh said at the league meetings in March. “Pressure breaks pipes. You don’t have to be a one-dimensional, one pass-rush type guy. But the more good pass rushers you put into a pressure scheme, obviously, the better off you’re going to be. And you have more options. You can rush four, you can rush three. You can rush different people.

“I do believe you have to cover people in this league, but I can go the other way if you really squeeze me on it. But I don’t like not being able to cover people in all honesty. Maybe that’s just my own bias — I played defensive back a little, coached it. I really do believe you have to be able to cover people.”

It’s not as though the Ravens don’t desire good pass rushers, but they’ve made quality and depth in the secondary a priority over these last few years. After enduring draft disappointments Matt Elam and Terrence Brooks and underwhelming “value” signings in the three seasons following Super Bowl XLVII, Baltimore has awarded big contracts to safeties in three of the last four offseasons. Last month also marked the fifth consecutive year in which the Ravens drafted a cornerback in the fourth round or earlier, creating a talent pipeline to avoid a repeat of 2014 when street free agent Rashaan Melvin was starting playoff games due to the lack of secondary depth entering that campaign. The recent investment of draft capital in cornerbacks coincided with signing veteran Brandon Carr to a four-year, $24 million contract two years ago and making Tavon Young the highest-paid slot cornerback in the NFL in February.

Perhaps the best indication of their current philosophy is the Ravens retaining cornerback Jimmy Smith despite having two other starting-caliber — and cheaper — cornerbacks in Marlon Humphrey and Carr and talented young options behind them. Smith will turn 31 in July and carries the highest 2019 cap number on the team at $15.85 million, which led many to view him as a likely cap casualty this offseason. Injuries and suspensions have limited him to 12 or fewer games in six of his eight NFL seasons and he was coming off an uneven 2018, but Baltimore has expressed little apparent interest in compromising its deep depth in the secondary, even if the $9.5 million saved by releasing Smith could have helped land a free-agent pass rusher like Houston or Ansah.

It remains to be seen how the pass rush fares without Za’Darius Smith and Suggs, whose combined 150 career sacks are more than twice as many as the 64 career takedowns produced by the entire current roster. Does a secondary potentially better than last year force opposing quarterbacks to hold the ball longer to create more pressure and sack opportunities for young rushers? Does the potential lack of pressure from inexperienced edge defenders cause more coverage breakdowns than we witnessed last year? Or, as Harbaugh suggested, are the Ravens confident in their ability to scheme pressure — as defensive coordinator Wink Martindale did last year — as long as the secondary performs at a high level?

The Ravens are pretty clearly betting on the coverage side of the give-take relationship, which should provide an interesting case study in the overall debate. Baltimore is depending on that philosophy minimizing what some fear could be a substantial drop-off on the defensive side of the ball.

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Now or never for Bowser, T. Williams to boost Ravens pass rush

Posted on 29 March 2019 by Luke Jones

John Harbaugh wasn’t using coach speak when discussing Ravens outside linebackers Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams at the league meetings in Arizona this past week.

Sure, this is the time of year NFL coaches tend to talk up even the least deserving of young players with meaningful games still months away. But when a team has lost its 2018 sacks leader (Za’Darius Smith) as well as a potential future Hall of Famer who recorded nearly twice as many quarterback takedowns as anyone else in franchise history (Terrell Suggs) and hasn’t replaced either a few weeks into free agency, the in-house candidates to replace them become more prominent.

A veteran could still fall into Baltimore’s lap and perhaps a high-impact prospect will be sitting on the board when Eric DeCosta makes his first draft pick as general manager next month, but the odds suggest at least one of Bowser and Williams must take a meaningful step forward if the Ravens don’t want their pass rush to fall off a cliff in 2019. You can only ask so much of incumbent starting outside linebacker Matthew Judon, who is also scheduled to become a free agent next winter.

“The two young guys, Tyus and Timmy, need to step up. It’s their job to do that,” Harbaugh said. “They’re very committed to doing it. I’ve talked to both of them. Both are excited about their opportunities. They have it, and let’s roll. Then, whatever young guys we add or if someone gets added as a veteran — there’s a possibility of that still — we’ll just see.”

Bowser and Williams were drafted two years ago for this very scenario with Suggs no longer in the picture, but their development has been a source of disappointment with neither having played more than 162 defensive snaps in a season. The optimist would point to the lack of opportunities behind Suggs, Judon, and Smith — a trio who combined to register 22 1/2 sacks last season — as the reason for Bowser and Williams accomplishing so little to this point. But defensive coordinator Wink Martindale’s propensity for rotating players at every level of the defense and the 36-year-old Suggs registering only 1 1/2 sacks after Week 7 make it difficult to believe the Ravens wouldn’t have preferred keeping the seven-time Pro Bowl selection on more of a pitch count if Bowser or Williams were deemed ready.

Williams, a 2017 third-round pick from Alabama, was active for just eight games as a rookie, but he showed promise last preseason with 2 1/2 sacks and collected two more over the first four regular-season games before sustaining a minor hamstring injury. The 25-year-old appeared in just three more games before hurting his ankle and being inactive for the final nine contests, which included the playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. The ankle injury wasn’t the only problem, however, as the rush specialist struggled to maintain his playing weight and seemingly fell out of favor with the coaching staff as Harbaugh bluntly stated in Week 16 the need for a healthy Williams to be one of the best 46 players in order to be active. Another obstacle has been Williams’ inability to make an impact in other ways as he’s taken part in just 60 plays on special teams in two seasons.

Bowser’s inability to carve out a meaningful role in the rotation is more curious since the 2017 second-round pick from Houston is more versatile than Williams and has been active for all but one game in two seasons, playing extensively on special teams. The 23-year-old seemed on his way to a successful rookie season when he registered a sack and an interception in his second NFL game, a 35-snap performance that earned him the NFL’s rookie of the week award. The problem is Bowser followed that with a poor eight-snap showing the following week in the Ravens’ ugly loss in London, giving up a touchdown pass in coverage and failing to set the edge on several runs. Bowser has been chasing playing time ever since, seeing more than 15 defensive snaps in a game just four times since Week 2 of 2017 and rarely distinguishing himself when he’s been on the field.

The urgency is high with both as they enter their third season in Baltimore, but neither should be written off because of the lackluster start to their careers. Former second-round pick Paul Kruger recorded one sack and appeared in only 20 games — special teams being a substantial reason why — in his first two years before registering 14 1/2 quarterback takedowns over the next two seasons to fetch a $40 million contract with Cleveland after Super Bowl XLVII. Both Smith and Pernell McPhee were inconsistent over their first few seasons before ultimately breaking out in their contrast year and cashing in as free agents.

On the other hand, Baltimore gave up on 2016 Day 2 picks Kamalei Correa and Bronson Kaufusi after two disappointing seasons, meaning Bowser or Williams shouldn’t assume anything despite the current lack of depth at the position.

Yes, DeCosta still has the time and resources to add more competition at outside linebacker, but the Ravens have other needs and there is no guarantee the right veteran will shake free or a rookie pass rusher selected in even the first round will be ready to make an immediate impact. The Ravens’ best chance of keeping their pass rush on the right track in 2019 is getting an appropriate return on the investments made in Bowser and Williams.

Few young players on the roster should be feeling more pressure this spring and summer.

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Ravens-Chargers: Five predictions for Saturday night

Posted on 21 December 2018 by Luke Jones

Anything short of a win over the Los Angeles Chargers will leave the Ravens needing something close to a Christmas miracle to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

A victory won’t come easy as Baltimore will be playing the most balanced team in the conference that still has much to play for itself with the AFC West and home-field advantage still up for grabs. The Chargers certainly present the biggest defensive test the Ravens’ revamped offense will have encountered since the bye week.

Frankly, this is the kind of game John Harbaugh’s team just hasn’t won in December in the post-Super Bowl XLVII era with several commendable efforts ending in heartbreak.

It’s time to go on the record as these AFC teams meet for the 12th time in the all-time regular-season series with the Ravens holding a 6-5 advantage. The Chargers were 4-3 playing Baltimore in San Diego, but the Ravens are 3-2 against them in the John Harbaugh era with the last meeting being a 29-26 Ravens win at M&T Bank Stadium in 2015.

Below are five predictions for Saturday:

1. John Brown will catch a long touchdown. Lamar Jackson is a limited passer right now despite his electrifying mobility that’s helped the Ravens to this point. However, the one area of the field where Jackson has had success is the short middle (under 15 yards through the air) where he’s posted a 98 passer rating and completed 77 percent of his attempts, per SharpFootballStats.com. The problem is the Chargers defense has been very effective in that area, ranking first in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric against short passes and first against tight ends. However, the Chargers rank last in DVOA against deep passes over 15 yards in the air. Jackson is due to connect on a long one, and opportunities will be there.

2. Chargers running back Melvin Gordon will collect 125 total yards and a touchdown with much damage coming on passes. Los Angeles went 3-0 without the Pro Bowl running back, which speaks to how deep this offense is. The returning Gordon is averaging 5.2 yards per carry, but the biggest challenge he presents against a superb run defense is his ability to make plays as a receiver out of the backfield. Two weeks ago, Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes completed 10 passes to running backs in an effort to offset Baltimore’s pass rush, and I expect Philip Rivers to do the same. The difference is Gordon is more dangerous in the open field than any of the Chiefs’ current backs.

3. The Ravens will be held under 160 rushing yards for the first time since Week 9. This ground game is too good to be completely shut down at this point, especially with Greg Roman’s reputation for consistently adding new wrinkles. However, the Chargers do possess the best run defense the Ravens have seen since before the bye, and rookie safety Derwin James is the type of player who just might be able to bottle up Jackson more than previous teams could. The Chiefs held Baltimore to an ordinary 3.6 yards per carry after being gashed in the first quarter, which is why it’s critical for the Ravens to grab an early lead while the Chargers adjust to the shock of Jackson’s speed and this run game.

4. Los Angeles edge rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram will combine for three sacks. Bosa and Ingram will give Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr. problems, but how they hold the edge will be crucial this week with Jackson’s ability to run. Meanwhile, Terrell Suggs and Matt Judon will try to get to Rivers, but the veteran has the ninth-fastest average time to throw from snap to release in the NFL and will use quick passes to Keenan Allen, who poses a challenge in the slot. The short week is also a factor as Judon has nursed a minor knee injury and Suggs was already quiet against Tampa Bay after playing a season-high 70 snaps in Kansas City. The Ravens need pressure from Za’Darius Smith inside.

5. More balance and extra rest will be the difference for the Chargers as the Ravens fall 26-17. I don’t believe this is a bad matchup for Baltimore as Marlon Humphrey and Jimmy Smith have enough size to combat the tall Los Angeles receivers, but I’m not confident enough in a one-dimensional offense producing enough points to offset the times when the Ravens defense is unable to get stops like we saw in the fourth quarter and overtime in Kansas City. The Chargers haven’t been held under 20 points in a game all season, and the revamped Ravens haven’t shown the ability to score into the high 20s without at least one touchdown from the defense or special teams. A cross-country trip on a short week also does veterans and a rookie quarterback no favors. It will be a close one throughout, but a late fourth-quarter touchdown pass from Rivers to Allen will put the game away for the Chargers and leave the Ravens scoreboard watching for the rest of the weekend.

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Ravens list four players as questionable for Chargers game

Posted on 20 December 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens are as healthy as they could reasonably hope to be going into Week 16 and their biggest game of the season.

Outside linebacker Matt Judon (knee), tight end Nick Boyle (concussion), defensive back Anthony Levine (toe/ankle), and guard Alex Lewis (shoulder) are all listed as questionable for Saturday’s contest against the Los Angeles Chargers, but Lewis was the only player not to practice fully on Thursday. After being cleared from the concussion protocol, Boyle appears likely to play, which is a positive development with his significant blocking role in Baltimore’s rush-heavy offense.

“He’s progressing well, and we’ll just have to see,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “I think it’ll be a little bit of a decision on Saturday — maybe today — to see how he gets through the practice and everything [and] see how he feels.”

Levine was a full participant after missing practice on Tuesday and Wednesday as he’s nursed a nagging ankle issue for several weeks.

The Chargers are also getting healthy at the right time as Pro Bowl running back Melvin Gordon (knee) wasn’t included in the final game status report after practicing fully all week. Gordon will be making his return after a three-game absence and could present a matchup problem as a receiver out of the backfield as he’s caught 44 passes for 453 yards and four touchdowns in 10 games this season. The fourth-year back has rushed for nine touchdowns and has averaged 5.2 yards per carry in 2018.

Los Angeles hopes to have Pro Bowl wide receiver Keenan Allen back on the field, another significant development for Saturday’s game. The 6-foot-2 target suffered a hip pointer in last week’s win at Kansas City, but he was able to practice on a limited basis on Wednesday and Thursday and was designated as questionable. According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Allen is expected to play and has caught 88 passes for 1,074 yards and six touchdowns once again serving as Philip Rivers’ favorite target.

According to Weather.com, the Saturday night forecast in Carson, California calls for partly cloudy skies and temperatures in the low 60s with winds five to 10 miles per hour and only a slight chance of precipitation.

Below is the final injury report of the week:

BALTIMORE
QUESTIONABLE: TE Nick Boyle (concussion), LB Matthew Judon (knee), DB Anthony Levine (toe/ankle), G Alex Lewis (shoulder)

LOS ANGELES
OUT: TE Sean Culkin (back)
DOUBTFUL: RB Austin Ekeler (neck)
QUESTIONABLE: WR Keenan Allen (hip)

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Ravens looking healthy while Chargers receiver Allen returns to practice

Posted on 19 December 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Only one Ravens player missed Wednesday’s practice for a health-related reason, but a significant injury-related development came on the other side of their Week 16 showdown.

Just a day after Los Angeles Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn said wide receiver Keenan Allen could be a game-time decision on Saturday, the Pro Bowl selection returned to the practice field. Allen suffered a hip pointer in the Week 15 win over Kansas City, but his limited participation in the middle of the week would indicate him having a good chance to play against Baltimore. The 26-year-old has caught 88 passes for 1,074 yards and six touchdowns this season.

Chargers running back Melvin Gordon (knee) practiced fully for the second straight day as he prepares to return to action for the first time since Week 12. Meanwhile, backup running back Austin Ekeler remains sidelined with a neck injury and concussion.

Ravens defensive back Anthony Levine missed practice for the second straight day with toe and ankle ailments, but the veteran was spotted running and doing agility work on the side field with a member of the training staff during the portion of practice open to media. Outside linebacker Matt Judon (knee) and tight end Nick Boyle (concussion) returned to practice on a limited basis on Wednesday.

Guard Alex Lewis (shoulder) was a limited participant for the second straight day.

Below is Wednesday’s injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: DB Anthony Levine (toe/ankle), G Marshal Yanda (non-injury)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: TE Nick Boyle (concussion), LB Matthew Judon (knee), G Alex Lewis (shoulder)
FULL PARTICIPATION: CB Jimmy Smith (non-injury), LB Terrell Suggs (non-injury), S Eric Weddle (non-injury)

LOS ANGELES
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: TE Sean Culkin (back), RB Austin Ekeler (neck)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: WR Keenan Allen (hip)
FULL PARTICIPATION: RB Melvin Gordon (knee), NT Brandon Mebane (non-injury)

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Ravens-Buccaneers: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 15 December 2018 by Luke Jones

The more things change for the Ravens, the more they stay the same as they host Tampa Bay on Sunday.

The quarterback and offense are different, but Baltimore entered the bye week with a 4-5 record, won three straight against underwhelming competition, and then lost a heartbreaker on the road against one of the best teams in the NFL. John Harbaugh’s team hadn’t done that since … wait for it … last year.

Still sporting a chance to win the AFC North and considered the favorite in a group of flawed teams currently vying for the No. 6 seed, will the Ravens get the job done this time around?

It’s time to go on the record as these teams meet for just the sixth time ever with the Ravens enjoying a 3-2 advantage. Baltimore has won the last three contests in the series as the Buccaneers haven’t won since 2002, which was their Super Bowl-winning season.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Ex-Raven Ryan Jensen will be flagged for mixing it up with a former teammate. Ozzie Newsome was wise not to give Jensen a $42 million deal, but that doesn’t mean Baltimore hasn’t missed him as his departure was the biggest change in a sound running game from a year ago becoming inept in the first half of 2018. The Ravens liked Jensen’s fire and physicality, but he’s struggled in Tampa Bay with penalties and underwhelming play as Pro Football Focus ranks him 29th among centers. His propensity for playing through the whistle is a recipe for an altercation with someone like Matt Judon.

2. Kenneth Dixon will lead Baltimore in rushing. Last Sunday’s loss at Kansas City was easily the best Dixon has looked since his rookie season as he registered 80 total yards and a touchdown on nine touches. Meanwhile, Gus Edwards has averaged an ordinary 4.0 yards per carry over the last two games after racking up 5.8 per attempt in the previous two weeks. Edwards will remain heavily involved, but a healthy Dixon is the most versatile of the Ravens’ running backs and gives them some juice as a receiver. Now, you hold your breath that the 2016 fourth-round pick can stay on the field.

3. Tampa Bay’s James Winston will throw a critical interception to spoil a two-touchdown day. The Buccaneers haven’t won a road game since Week 1, but any team that’s beaten New Orleans and held a 14-3 halftime lead in last week’s rematch should have your attention. It’s been a turbulent year for Winston, but he’s thrown eight touchdowns and two picks while averaging 243 passing yards per game over the last four weeks. Meanwhile, Marlon Humphrey, Tony Jefferson, and Tavon Young aren’t 100 percent in the Ravens secondary. That’s a concern facing the league’s No. 1 passing attack that has one of the better receivers in football in Mike Evans.

4. Lamar Jackson will find Willie Snead for the slot receiver’s first touchdown since Week 1. It’s difficult figuring out where the rapport is between these two as Snead was Baltimore’s leading receiver in Jackson’s first start as well as in Kansas City, but the slot receiver had a total of one catch for eight yards in the wins over Oakland and Atlanta. The Ravens need to find more production out of their passing game down the stretch, and Jackson has been most successful throwing over the middle from spread formations, making Snead’s presence important. Tampa Bay ranks dead last in red-zone defense.

5. The Ravens will strengthen their playoff chances with an unspectacular 26-17 victory. My confidence level in a win remains high, but the Buccaneers are capable of giving any team problems with the way they throw the ball all over the field. Their fatal flaw has been an unthinkable 24 interceptions this season, but the Ravens rank 31st in the league with just 10 takeaways — six of them interceptions — and are banged up in the secondary. Playing another bad run defense will help, but the last four weeks have each been one-score games in the fourth quarter as the Ravens aren’t built to blow out teams without the defense or special teams contributing a touchdown or two. Harbaugh’s team won’t gain much from the eyeball-test perspective on Sunday, but a win is all that matters in mid-December.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 34-17 win over Oakland

Posted on 27 November 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens moving back over the .500 mark with the 34-17 win over Oakland, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The first half was an example why I can’t really trust this Ravens offense, regardless of who the quarterback is. Marty Mornhinweg calling nearly twice as many pass plays as runs after compiling 267 rushing yards the previous week is the kind of thing we’ve seen too often.

2. No moment better epitomized the second-half philosophical shift than Ronnie Stanley gesturing to the sideline for more runs after a nine-yard rush on the third play of the second half. The left tackle easily had one of the best run-blocking games of his career on Sunday.

3. If the Ravens stick with Lamar Jackson and a run-heavy approach to try to limit the number of possessions of explosive opposing offenses, they’ll need to do better than going 4-for-8 inside the red zone over the last two games. That percentage would rank 27th in the NFL for 2018.

4. My favorite part of the 74-yard strike to Mark Andrews wasn’t the perfect throw, but it was Jackson dipping his shoulders to really sell the play-fake, which kept Raiders cornerback Rashaan Melvin’s eyes in the backfield a moment too long as Andrews blew right past him.

5. Matt Judon’s three sacks on three straight defensive snaps not only sealed the victory, but they put Derek Carr in historic — and familiar — company. The last time a quarterback was sacked by the same player on three straight plays was in 2002, per NFL Research. That quarterback? David Carr. Remarkable.

6. Judon’s strip-sack led to Baltimore registering its first takeaway since Week 7, but the defense is still looking for its first interception since the first quarter of the Week 5 loss at Cleveland. Rookie sensation Gus Edwards was still on the practice squad at that point.

7. Cyrus Jones returning a punt 70 yards for a touchdown was a cool moment, but the former Gilman star should thank Anthony Levine and Patrick Onwuasor for their early blocks and Chris Moore and Judon for springing him all the way. That return was executed beautifully all the way around.

8. Per Sharp Football, the offense used two running backs and two tight ends 20 percent of the time — the league average is three percent — and used the shotgun 93 percent of the time on Sunday. Scoring four offensive touchdowns in two games is pedestrian, but it’s looked anything but that.

9. Remember how the Ravens didn’t allow a second-half touchdown in their first six games? Sunday marked the third straight contest in which they’ve allowed a touchdown on the first drive of the second half. Credit Wink Martindale’s group for clamping down after that, however.

10. The previous Mornhinweg criticism aside, one of my favorite calls of the game was Ty Montgomery’s third-and-5 run out of a three-wide set that moved the chains late in the third quarter. Teams should spread out and run on third downs of short-to-medium distance more often.

11. Joe Flacco wasn’t the only one who had Ed Reed on his mind as Terrell Suggs looked to lateral the ball on his 43-yard fumble return for a touchdown. I’m sure Reed was smiling as he watched, but not as much as John Harbaugh after Suggs decided to keep it.

12. Kudos to the Ravens for recognizing Colts Hall of Famer Lenny Moore on his 85th birthday and Orioles great Adam Jones, who raised $125,000 for the Living Classrooms Foundation and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metropolitan Baltimore with his annual tailgate on Sunday. What blessings both men are.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 21-0 win over Tennessee

Posted on 16 October 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens improving to 4-2 in their 21-0 win at Tennessee, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Ravens defenders said all the right things about Dean Pees last week, but the group’s post-game celebration with Wink Martindale reflected how much the record-setting shutout in front of their old defensive coordinator really meant. They wanted to prove they’re a better defense now.

2. What gives Za’Darius Smith a slight edge over Terrell Suggs as the Ravens’ best pass rusher? His ability to pressure from the inside is so crucial with today’s quarterbacks getting the ball out as quickly as possible. He continues to be on the Pernell McPhee contract year plan.

3. One of the undersold aspects of this terrific defensive start is the depth the Ravens continue to use as 20 players took defensive snaps against the Titans. Rotating defensive linemen and edge rushers have long been common practices, but the Ravens are doing this at every level of their defense.

4. Getting Michael Crabtree involved early was a prudent move to help his confidence after last week’s performance, but remember this is a veteran who caught 25 touchdowns from 2015-17. The real test will be the next time he has a chance to make a defining catch in the closing minutes.

5. Converting 10 of the first 11 third downs of the game was impressive enough, but the Ravens moved the chains on four requiring nine or more yards. You want to avoid those third-and-long situations, but being able to convert some is a mark of a good offense.

6. The running game was functional, but I roll my eyes when someone praises the final run-pass balance as the key to winning. Building a 21-0 lead was the blueprint for running that frequently. Running more effectively remains critical as Baltimore averaged 2.4 yards per carry in the first half.

7. The 14th shutout in team history was aided by the Ravens only playing 44 defensive snaps, an incredibly low number. The defense had much to do with that, of course, but credit the offense for putting together three drives of seven or more minutes each. That’s complementary football.

8. Joe Flacco had a good day, particularly on third down, but his interception on a deep throw down the middle to Willie Snead late in the first half was a little too aggressive with three timeouts and a minute remaining. Titans safety Kevin Byard’s catch also should have been reviewed.

9. Cyrus Jones recorded a 26-yard punt return in his Ravens debut, but what a day to be able to share the field with former Gilman teammate and Titans kick returner Darius Jennings. I also liked seeing Chris Moore back as the kick returner even though he received only one opportunity.

10. Plays like the unnecessary roughness penalty for pushing Titans punter Brett Kern in the back late in the first half are preventing Matt Judon from taking the step from pretty good player to really good player. It happens too often and isn’t smart football.

11. Gus Edwards wasn’t spectacular, but 42 yards on 10 carries should warrant some more opportunities. He runs well for a 238-pound back and certainly brings more physicality to this running game.

12. Remember those old Ramon Harewood-Antonio Brown comparisons from the 2010 draft? A healthy scratch in Week 6, Tyus Bowser was selected 15 spots before JuJu Smith-Schuster in the 2017 second round. The difference this time is Smith-Schuster wasn’t an unknown while playing a position of great need. I’m just saying.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 12-9 overtime loss at Cleveland

Posted on 09 October 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens falling to 3-2 following the ugly 12-9 overtime loss to Cleveland, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Baltimore has had past performances like Sunday’s at FirstEnergy Stadium, but the difference was you could always count on a lousy football team to “Brown” it up at the most critical moment. The Browns were far from perfect, but Baker Mayfield clearly makes them a better team.

2. You hate criticizing a group that surrendered only 12 points, but the two-minute defense left a lot to be desired, allowing a 78-yard touchdown drive at the end of the first half, a 38-yard drive in the final minute of regulation, and the 65-yard game-ending drive in overtime.

3. Had anyone heard of Derrick Willies before his 39-yard reception on third-and-8 in overtime? The rookie free agent caught a combined 40 passes in three collegiate seasons at Texas Tech and Iowa and hadn’t caught an NFL pass before the fourth quarter.

4. Arguably worse was Duke Johnson’s 15-yard run on the next play that put the Browns at the Baltimore 28. It was a less-than-stellar showing from Tyus Bowser and C.J. Mosley on that run since Cleveland kicker Greg Joseph wasn’t inspiring any confidence that he’d make a longer kick.

5. I’ve written extensively about the running game this week, but Lamar Jackson leads the team in yards per carry (min. 15 rushes), making it understandable why the Ravens want to keep him involved. Still, bringing him on the field for an inside rush on first-and-16 in overtime made little sense.

6. The defense recorded five sacks and a total of 27 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. The Ravens allowed Mayfield to escape the pocket a few times, but the pass rush bounced back from a quiet performance in Pittsburgh. Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith were particularly good in that area.

7. Joe Flacco was among those complaining about the illegal block in the back call on Chris Moore that wiped away Alex Collins’ 17-yard run in overtime, but it was avoidable just like Matt Judon’s that canceled out a touchdown against Denver. You have to see what you’re hitting.

8. Anthony Levine continues to play terrific football after recording three pass breakups for the second straight week. He’s a good example of how using creativity with sub packages can work to your advantage. Levine isn’t a pure safety, linebacker, or cornerback, but he’s a good football player.

9. John Harbaugh acknowledged not planning to use Willie Henry for 39 defensive snaps in his return from August hernia surgery, but he played well, registering a sack and another tackle. He provides another inside pass-rushing option to rotate with Smith and Brent Urban.

10. The Ravens lead the NFL in scoring defense and rank in the top five in a number of other categories, but they’ve recorded just six takeaways in their first five games after having 10 in the first two contests last year. I suspect that’s going to change sooner than later.

11. Browns cornerback Denzel Ward was responsible for taking as many as 10 points off the board from the Ravens with his goal-line interception and field goal block. He, Mayfield, and defensive end Myles Garrett sure look poised to make Cleveland an interesting team over the next few years.

12. Watching a 9-9 contest in the final seconds of overtime brought memories of the only tie in Ravens history, which came against Philadelphia at Memorial Stadium on Nov. 16, 1997. I recall leaving that day as fans from both teams argued over which team stunk more. Both finished 6-9-1.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 47-3 win over Buffalo

Posted on 10 September 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens kicking off the season with an emphatic 47-3 win over Buffalo, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Sunday marked the first time in franchise history a Baltimore defense did not surrender a first down in the first half. The Bills had 33 yards compared to the Ravens’ 26 points at intermission. J. Peterman would have had a better chance than Nathan Peterman, who was awful.

2. Wink Martindale added some defensive wrinkles, including swapping out a linebacker for an extra defensive lineman in some nickel looks. My favorite was Za’Darius Smith’s quarterback sack when he also sent Terrell Suggs, Tim Williams, Matt Judon, Tyus Bowser, and C.J. Mosley after rookie Josh Allen. Yes, six linebackers.

3. Marlon Humphrey was Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded Ravens player as he finished with four pass breakups and two tackles. He’ll have bigger challenges over the next few weeks, but the 2017 first-round pick was excellent against the Bills.

4. How many people looking out their windows Sunday morning would have predicted Joe Flacco throwing 32 passes in the first half? He had no issues throwing a wet football and was Baltimore’s highest-graded offensive player, according to PFF.

5. It’s easy to forget how the offense sputtered in the second quarter as the Ravens gained only eight yards on 15 plays before the final touchdown drive when Michael Crabtree caught the 12-yard score. A pretty throw and even prettier footwork. That was an example of why they signed him.

6. Tavon Young wouldn’t have been my guess to exploit a porous Buffalo line, but he became the first Baltimore defensive back since Bennie Thompson in 1996 to collect two sacks in a game and was strong against the run. Martindale calls the 5-foot-9 nickel a “pit bull” for good reason.

7. Not much was made of Alex Collins receiving only three preseason carries, but he found little room and lost a fumble. You do wonder if a few more live-game touches would have been beneficial for a player who’s had some past fumbling concerns. Of course, suspect blocking wasn’t his fault.

8. Janarion Grant offered good and bad with a 51-yard punt return and a fumble that fortunately rolled out of bounds in the first half. It’s easy to blame the rain, but Grant appeared to take his eyes off the ball with a defender bearing down. That can’t happen.

9. None had a negative impact, but the Ravens didn’t get much of a return on the five offensive snaps Lamar Jackson played before then relieving Joe Flacco in the second half. It’s something for which opponents must prepare, but you sometimes worry about upsetting the overall rhythm of the offense.

10. Mark Andrews didn’t stand out often over the summer, but the Ravens have to be pleased with his three catches for 31 yards in the first half. PFF gave him the second-best grade among offensive players.

11. Being able to rest key veterans in the second half bodes well for a quick turnaround at Cincinnati on Thursday, but young players receiving extensive regular-season action could pay off down the line. Inside linebacker Kenny Young and cornerback Anthony Averett stood out in particular.

12. At an ordinary 218 pounds, Buck Allen doesn’t look the part of a short-yardage back, but he has a knack for getting to the desired mark. He lined up as the fullback on his 1-yard touchdown in the third quarter and showed off a respectable Ray Lewis dance to boot.

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