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With tough schedule ahead, Ravens defense hoping for another step forward

Posted on 10 October 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens defense took a step in the right direction in Pittsburgh.

Needing overtime to beat Steelers rookie quarterback Devlin Hodges — who still managed a 98.1 passer rating in relief of the injured Mason Rudolph — hardly qualifies as a breakthrough, but standout cornerback Marlon Humphrey’s strip and recovery against Pro Bowl wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster was exactly what the Ravens needed for a 26-23 win and a long exhale after giving up a combined 73 points and over 1,000 yards the previous two weeks. The performance was far from perfect, but it was good enough, especially with a home game against winless Cincinnati looming on Sunday and the rest of the AFC North seemingly in disarray.

Executive vice president and former general manager Ozzie Newsome said it best to defensive coordinator Wink Martindale on the plane ride home to Baltimore.

“He said, ‘Just keep getting better. Just keep getting better,’” said Martindale, who praised his group’s improved tackling and situational work against the Steelers. “And that’s true. That’s the way this National Football League is.”

Of course, the road victory over their struggling division rival didn’t come without another significant setback as strong safety Tony Jefferson was lost for the season with a serious knee injury. Labeled the “heart and soul” of the defense by head coach John Harbaugh and having just taken over the responsibilities of relaying the calls in the defensive huddle, Jefferson was a veteran leader for a group already missing former Ravens Terrell Suggs, Eric Weddle, and C.J. Mosley. Jefferson’s loss on top of the existing concerns about the pass rush, inside linebacker, and the other injuries in the secondary is tough to take.

Third-year safety Chuck Clark is expected to take his place with 2018 sixth-round pick DeShon Elliott also stepping into a larger role in different sub packages. It’s hardly ideal, but Clark played well in two starts in place of Jefferson last year and has been praised repeatedly for his football intellect. The Ravens are about to find out what they have with their two younger options next to six-time Pro Bowl free safety Earl Thomas, who is still finding his own way in a more complex system than what he was used to in Seattle.

“We just have to go on with business as usual,” Thomas said. “Chuck will come in, and he’ll help out and I’ll fit right where I need to be. If I know the check-it and I see it, I’ll be vocal about it, but Chuck is going to take on that role as well.”

The Ravens were able to slow their heartbeat at inside linebacker with the addition of veteran Josh Bynes, whose performance as the “Mike” linebacker against Pittsburgh after only three practices and not being with an NFL team since March was nothing short of remarkable. The 30-year-old has rarely been a full-time starter in a nine-year career that began in Baltimore and will surely be tested by better offenses in the coming weeks, but the Ravens hope the stability he brought to the position in Week 5 will continue after the offseason plan to go exclusively younger and faster in the wake of Mosley’s free-agent departure clearly wasn’t working.

Bynes’ arrival has allowed the Ravens to move Patrick Onwuasor back to the weak-side position where he thrived down the stretch last season. It’s a move the fourth-year linebacker is on board with after his early struggles at Mosley’s old position. The shuffling led to 2018 fourth-round pick Kenny Young being a healthy scratch and fellow second-year linebacker Chris Board playing only one defensive snap against the Steelers.

“I felt way more comfortable. I was flying around,” said Onwuasor, who finished with seven tackles and one for a loss. “That was my natural position. It just felt like it fit me perfectly, and I think Wink could tell a little bit that I like that position a little bit better.”

Martindale will continue to tinker with both the starting lineup and sub packages to find the optimal fits, especially in a secondary ravaged by injuries. Last week brought the promotion of veteran cornerback Maurice Canady to the starting lineup after second-year defensive back Anthony Averett had struggled in place of the injured Jimmy Smith, who will miss his fifth straight game with a knee injury. Brandon Carr continues to play most of the snaps at the nickel position after the preseason loss of Tavon Young, but the 33-year-old would ideally be on more of a pitch count to keep him fresh all year.

Still, the greatest concern remains with the pass rush as the Ravens are tied for 24th in the NFL with only nine sacks and 26th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate, which is adjusted for down, distance, and opponent. Unlike the secondary that has Smith’s return to look forward to, there are no pass-rushing reinforcements on the way unless general manager Eric DeCosta pulls off a significant trade by the Oct. 29 deadline. Harbaugh and Martindale both expressed optimism this week about an increasing role for rookie Jaylon Ferguson, but 2017 third-round pick Tim Williams was waived just over a week ago after being advertised this offseason as part of the solution to replace Suggs and fellow free-agent departure Za’Darius Smith. Those two combined for 15 1/2 sacks last season and have a total of 8 1/2 for their new teams so far.

The Ravens have received three sacks apiece from starting outside linebackers Matthew Judon and Pernell McPhee, but they’re playing too many snaps, putting strain on their second-half performances as well as their long-term stamina for a 16-game season. Judon is playing 82.1 percent of the snaps on defense after taking 65.1 percent of them a year ago while McPhee is averaging a career-high 42.6 defensive snaps per game, far from ideal for a 30-year-old with an injury history.

Despite Martindale bringing plenty of blitzes in hopes of pressuring and overwhelming two inexperienced quarterbacks in Pittsburgh, the Ravens managed only one sack and three quarterback hits in nearly 65 minutes of play.

“When it really comes down to it, we have to win our one-on-ones up front,” Judon said. “We have to help our defense. We have to do a better job of getting to the quarterback and applying pressure and helping our secondary out, so they don’t have to cover forever.”

The reality is this is a much different defense than the top-shelf group that last played Cincinnati in Week 11 last season, meaning expectations for improvement must be realistic. Of the 11 defensive players who started against the Bengals in Lamar Jackson’s first NFL start 11 months ago, eight are either no longer with the organization or sidelined with long-term injuries. When dealing with that much change, you’ll gladly take another step or two in the right direction against a struggling opponent Sunday — even if the Bengals’ recent history of success against Baltimore shouldn’t be forgotten.

The schedule picks up considerably in Week 7 and beyond, meaning the Ravens must take advantage of this opportunity for a win and another confidence boost. Yes, Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton has broken the Ravens’ hearts in the past, but the Bengals have already allowed 20 sacks and rank in the bottom 10 in many offensive categories. The continued absence of seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green will certainly help as the Baltimore secondary tries to find its way with another key cog now out of the picture.

“We’re seeing what we’re good at. We’re seeing what we’re struggling at, and we’re making the right corrections,” Thomas said. “It might not show up right off, but it’s going to pay off in the end.”

After Sunday, the Ravens will play six of their next seven games against teams currently holding winning records. The defense is going to need those growing pains and adjustments to start paying off much sooner than later.

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No shortage of questions about play, leadership of Ravens defense

Posted on 30 September 2019 by Luke Jones

The post-game reaction was what you’d expect after the Ravens defense offered one of the worst home performances in franchise history in the 40-25 loss to Cleveland.

Tony Jefferson called it “disgusting.”

Matthew Judon described the “terrible” showing as unfit for “a standard that was set a long time ago.”

Earl Thomas labeled the day “frustrating as hell” after the Ravens had given up more than 500 yards and 33 points to Kansas City a week earlier.

Similar sentiments were offered throughout the locker room, but a comment made by Michael Pierce resonated for anyone who’s watched the Ravens surrender more than 500 yards and at least 33 points in back-to-back weeks for the first time in team history. The defensive tackle thoughtfully answered difficult questions from the podium outside the locker room, but he was eventually asked who had stepped up as leaders in the midst of a brutal day.

“Everyone knows who our leaders are.”

Do we though?

Do they?

It certainly isn’t Terrell Suggs, Eric Weddle, or C.J. Mosley. Their 17 combined Pro Bowls and three decades’ worth of institutional knowledge and football IQ are long gone, and the Ravens miss them. There’s no disputing that anymore.

To be clear, Pierce pointed to Thomas leading by example and Judon being more vocal, but the Ravens defense looked like a rudderless ship Sunday as the Browns punched the unit in the mouth repeatedly without resistance. There were more big plays surrendered, blown coverages and run-gap responsibilities, and some of the worst tackling ever observed from a Baltimore defense. The Ravens defense didn’t play tough or as a team, especially in the second half when the Browns scored 30 points.

Cleveland scored on five straight possessions from the end of the first half to midway through the fourth quarter. After Lamar Jackson’s touchdown pass to Mark Andrews and subsequent two-point conversion to cut the deficit to six with just under 10 minutes to go, the Ravens not only failed to make a stop, but they gave up a Nick Chubb 88-yard touchdown run on the next snap from scrimmage.

On that play, Thomas said he pulled up in an effort to avoid pulling his hamstring. To be clear, the six-time Pro Bowl safety and former Seattle Seahawk wasn’t going to run down the speedy Chubb — perhaps another issue entirely — but that business decision and an NFL Network report of “a heated discussion” between Thomas and Brandon Williams centered around the injured defensive tackle not playing Sunday are poor optics for someone who was signed to play at an elite level and help fill the leadership void.

But this isn’t about one player. The entire Ravens defense was a mess Sunday except for Marlon Humphrey, who was superb against three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. for most of the game. That said, even the third-year corner admitted to being responsible for the busted coverage that led to Baker Mayfield’s 59-yard completion to Ricky Seals-Jones in the third quarter.

Entering Monday, the Ravens ranked 25th in total defense, 20th in scoring defense, and 29th in pass defense. Their 10th-ranked run defense is buoyed only by two still-winless teams not even challenging them on the ground in the first two games as Baltimore now ranks 26th in the NFL in yards per carry allowed (4.9). Point to the absences of Williams and Jimmy Smith as well as the season-ending neck injury to Tavon Young as much as you want, but the Browns defense has managed to not completely fall apart these last two weeks despite most of its starting secondary being out.

It’s unclear to what degree the defensive issues can be fixed during the season. The young inside linebackers have been lost in coverage and undisciplined against the run. The veterans and youngsters at outside linebacker have been too inconsistent setting the edge. After Tyus Bowser’s sack on the game’s opening drive, the Baltimore pass rush didn’t hit Mayfield once the rest of the day. The high-priced safety tandem of Thomas and Jefferson has done little to prevent big play after big play these last three games. And, yes, the Ravens have definitely missed Smith and Young at cornerback.

But even before addressing the many on-field issues, who’s going to lead through this trying time? Which player is telling a dazed and wounded group that everything will be OK — with everyone believing him? If necessary, which veteran can provide a verbal boot to the ass that will be taken the right way?

This isn’t an individual knock on Thomas, Judon, Jefferson, or even second-stint veteran Pernell McPhee. Having untapped leadership qualities isn’t the same as establishing yourself as a leader, which must happen organically. That trust and responsibility can’t be forced, but the defense has undergone its greatest leadership exodus since Lewis and Reed walked out of the building in 2013. The difference then was Suggs and five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata still being there.

If Ray Lewis and Ed Reed had suddenly bolted in 2005 or 2006, Suggs probably wouldn’t have been the same leader then as he would eventually become. Weddle and Mosley certainly carried more clout over time than when they first arrived, making it difficult to simply point to Thomas as the solution.

It’s a process, but the Ravens must figure out these defensive woes much sooner than later.

There’s no shame in struggling on the road against the explosive Chiefs offense, but being embarrassed in your own building by the Browns rocks the foundation of what you claim to be.

And the defense doesn’t have that obvious leader to pick it up in the meantime.

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Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Demarcus Robinson (11) makes a one-handed touchdown catch in front of Baltimore Ravens cornerback Brandon Carr (24) during the first half of an NFL football game in Kansas City, Mo., Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

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Loss in Kansas City reflects growing pains for revamped Ravens defense

Posted on 23 September 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Some growing pains were always likely for the Ravens defense, especially when playing the NFL’s MVP and best offense from a year ago in Week 3.

It was easy to be dismissive of the departure of several key veterans in the offseason, citing the bloated contracts they received with their new teams and a notion that they’re overrated or past their prime. Some even had the gall to suggest the exits of mainstays such as C.J. Mosley, Terrell Suggs, and Eric Weddle would be addition by subtraction for a faster, younger defense in 2019.

That certainly wasn’t the case Sunday when the Ravens defense surrendered more than 500 yards in a 33-28 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Last December’s 27-24 overtime loss was far from perfect, but Baltimore allowed 61 fewer yards on 19 more plays in that contest that also included Pro Bowl wide receiver Tyreek Hill and starting left tackle Eric Fisher, who both sat out with injuries Sunday. The Chiefs registered four plays of more than 35 yards compared to just one last year — Patrick Mahomes’ miracle 49-yard completion to Hill on fourth-and-9 to set up the tying score late in the fourth quarter.

No, the Ravens defense wasn’t good enough Sunday — few are against Mahomes and Kansas City — but that doesn’t mean head coach John Harbaugh or anyone else should be panicking. There wasn’t a more difficult game on the schedule going into the 2019 season, but the Ravens still fell by just five points despite neither side of the ball performing at its best. There’s no shame in a revamped defense being unable to match last year’s showing or Lamar Jackson and a young offense not quite being ready for a full-blown shootout in the season’s third game.

“Can we play better? We will play better, and we’ll learn a lot from that experience,” Harbaugh said. “That team is no better than us, but they played better than us. Let’s get better. Let’s play better. Let’s coach better. Let’s get ourselves to the point where we can go into a game like that and win.

“We weren’t good enough on Sunday based on the way we played. But we will be because these guys aren’t backing down.”

There are issues to correct, however.

The coverage breakdowns that surfaced in Week 2 when Arizona rookie Kyler Murray threw for 349 yards continued against Mahomes, who was much more adept at making the Ravens pay for their mistakes. Cornerback Jimmy Smith remains sidelined with a sprained MCL in his right knee while nickel corner Tavon Young was lost for the year in August, but the secondary can’t chalk up all hiccups to those absences — as significant as they might be.

Six-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas presented an upgrade from the aging Weddle’s individual play, but the latter was the quarterback of the defense last year, diagnosing opponents’ plays and serving as a traffic cop for Wink Martindale’s deceptive schemes. That’s not to suggest Thomas, Tony Jefferson, or anyone else is incapable of filling that role, but it’s a different dynamic needing time to gel like the Ravens defense did down the stretch in 2018 after a shaky middle portion of the season.

Baltimore wasn’t tested by a woeful Miami offense in the opener and played well enough in the red zone and on third down to overcome coverage mistakes against the Cardinals, but it was the wrong time to be playing the Chiefs’ mighty offense, evident by Mahomes’ 83-yard touchdown strike to a wide-open Mecole Hardman on a drive that began on Kansas City’s own 4 in the second quarter.

“You never know the exact route you’re going to get, but there are principles involved in those coverages,” said Harbaugh, who added that the coaching staff must better prepare players for every situation. “We’ve had breakdowns two weeks in a row in different coverages. And that’s not good. That’s what costs you big gains when you’re playing good teams who are explosive as [the Chiefs] are and can make those plays. We just can’t have it. Our guys know it.”

The problems extend beyond the secondary as Ravens inside linebackers have struggled to hang with tight ends and running backs more frequently than the too harshly criticized Mosley would in coverage in the past. After platooning effectively last season, Patrick Onwuasor and Kenny Young have made some splash plays in expanded roles, but the Ravens have missed the down-to-down consistency and aptitude of the four-time Pro Bowl inside linebacker. Some overpursuit and difficulty shedding blocks also contributed to Kansas City averaging 5.4 yards per carry.

None of this is to suggest Mosley was worth the $17 million per year the New York Jets are paying him, but Sunday was a reminder why the Ravens were still trying to re-sign him before the bidding became too lucrative in the end. Replacing him is easier said than done — even if he wasn’t Ray Lewis.

“We have not been great in man coverage all the time,” said Harbaugh of his inside linebackers. “We’ve had some really good moments, and then we’ve had some not good moments. We had one situation where it was a half-roll pass in a certain zone coverage that we didn’t get back to the spot where we want to be, and they hit [Travis] Kelce over the middle one time. It’s different issues. We can be better there.”

Outside linebacker was discussed at great length throughout the spring and summer, but the same questions persist three weeks into the season. The Ravens have received quality play from starters Matthew Judon and Pernell McPhee, but Harbaugh called out 2017 draft picks Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams and their need to be better as the pair has combined for five tackles, zero sacks, and one quarterback hit in 125 combined snaps this season.

Harbaugh was more forgiving of rookie Jaylon Ferguson in his NFL debut, but setting the edge against the run — an underrated part of Suggs’ game even late in his career — has been problematic for the young outside linebackers, another reason why Martindale has leaned so heavily on Judon and McPhee. Against the Chiefs, Judon played 58 of 68 defensive snaps while McPhee took 56. More effective as a situational pass rusher on a limited pitch count throughout his career, McPhee has already played 118 snaps, more than halfway to his total of 204 with Washington last year.

Williams, Bowser, and Ferguson aren’t just going to be handed snaps, however.

“Those reps are definitely up for grabs. We’ll see who takes them,” Harbaugh said. “In my mind, those young guys, the reps are there. We need to give our older guys a break. They can’t be playing all those snaps all year.

“We want to play fast defense. We want to be rested and healthy. But none of those guys have stepped up in my mind and taken the reps yet. That’s disappointing, so we’ll see who’s the man for the job. The ball is in their court.”

The good news is most of the aforementioned players are young and capable of improving as the year progresses. The return of a healthy Smith in a few weeks should help calm the secondary at the very least while the Ravens search for more consistency and production at inside and outside linebacker.

Again, the Chiefs averaged just over 35 points per game last season. Concerns about the Ravens defense aren’t as severe as Sunday’s loss suggested just like the group wasn’t as good as the season-opening win over woeful Miami indicated. The truth lies in between with the Ravens having much work to do to become a top-flight defense rather than the ordinary group that experienced too many breakdowns Sunday.

There’s still plenty of room and time to grow.

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marquisebrown

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 2 win over Arizona

Posted on 17 September 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens starting 2-0 for the third time in four years after a 23-17 win over Arizona, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Terrell Suggs’ return to Baltimore was uneventful as he finished with three tackles. He was paid handsomely to return to play in his home state, but I couldn’t help but wonder if witnessing the dramatic improvement from Lamar Jackson firsthand made him regret that decision a little more.

2. The zone coverage breakdowns were concerning — especially with Kansas City up next — but the situational defense was exactly what you want to see. The Cardinals were 3-for-12 on third and fourth downs and 1-for-4 inside the red zone. That’s how you survive giving up 6.5 yards per play.

3. We noted last week that Jackson didn’t throw much outside the numbers against Miami, but that wasn’t the case in Week 2 as he completed passes all over the field (see below), including his beautiful 41-yard completion to seal the six-point win. This is really getting fun.

4. Aside from a Kyler Murray 31-yard pass to KeeSean Johnson in the second quarter, Brandon Carr was stellar with a team-high seven tackles, the second sack of his career, and a pass breakup. Having the versatility to play the nickel is another reminder how valuable his 2017 signing was.

5. The only player to have more receiving yards than Marquise Brown in his first two NFL games was Anquan Boldin in 2003. So much for tempering expectations for a 22-year-old who missed the entire spring and a large portion of summer practice reps. He’s making it look easy.

6. As unexpected as Brown’s immediate success might be, Mark Andrews dominating over the first two games isn’t surprising. He’s caught 16 of the 17 passes on which he’s been targeted so far. Todd Heap’s single-season record of 855 receiving yards by a tight end is in real jeopardy.

7. Sacks are just part of the equation when evaluating a pass rusher, but Matthew Judon has collected one in each of the first two games. He didn’t hit the two-sack mark until Week 9 last season. His contract year is certainly off to a strong start.

8. Pernell McPhee split a sack with Patrick Ricard and played 40 snaps. That workload is more than you’d like to give the 30-year-old with an injury history, but McPhee is the only one offering much pressure when lining up inside.

9. The motion, pre-snap movement, and deception the Ravens are using has to be dizzying for opposing defenses. Jackson’s touchdown to Hayden Hurst came after the tight end flipped to the right side, chipped an edge rusher, went to the ground, and jumped up to catch an easy 1-yard score.

10. Unsuccessfully going for a fourth-and-3 from the Arizona 43 on the second drive drew some criticism, but it’s the aggressiveness we’ve come to expect from John Harbaugh. Give me the coach trying to win as opposed to playing not to lose like kicking three field goals inside the 5.

11. Ben Roethlisberger is out for the year, winless Cincinnati was throttled in its home opener, and Baker Mayfield and Cleveland hardly looked like a well-oiled machine against the injury-ravaged Jets after being embarrassed by 30 points at home in Week 1. The AFC North is Baltimore’s division to lose.

12. Change was a theme at the stadium with the debut of new public address announcer Greg Davis and Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” replacing U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” for player introductions. My favorite change, however, was the return of the Ravens shield as the midfield logo.

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Ten Ravens predictions for the 2019 season

Posted on 06 September 2019 by Luke Jones

Instead of going through the exercise of making league-wide predictions, the following focus on the Ravens and their goal to win back-to-back AFC North division titles for just the second time in team history:

1. Lamar Jackson won’t break Michael Vick’s season rushing record for a quarterback, but his 3,000 passing yards and 60-percent completion percentage will be positive steps in his development.

Make no mistake, the 22-year-old will continue to run more than any quarterback in the NFL, but general manager Eric DeCosta didn’t invest meaningful resources at running back and the Ravens didn’t practice their passing game so exhaustively this summer for Jackson to again average 17 carries per game like he did as a starter last season. There won’t be a rigid cap on how much he runs, but this offense will use more play action and run-pass options to create higher-percentage, short-to-intermediate throws with occasional deep shots. He’ll still have accuracy lapses, but his mechanics were steadier and he threw the ball more consistently all summer. The biggest question is how much he’s improved his ball security, an area more difficult to gauge in controlled practice environments without the threat of contact.

2. The defense will register 37 sacks and see its pressure rate fall to the bottom half of the league.

Baltimore was tied for 11th with 43 sacks last year, but its pressure rate (33.4 percent) ranked eighth in the league, according to Football Outsiders. Wink Martindale isn’t panicking with one of the best secondaries in the NFL backing up his well-designed blitzes, but there’s so much uncertainty beyond Matthew Judon. Pernell McPhee should provide some help if his snaps are managed properly, but Willie Henry and Shane Ray, two players thought to be potential answers, were jettisoned at the end of the summer. Za’Darius Smith and Terrell Suggs weren’t elite last year, but expecting the trio of Tyus Bowser, Tim Williams, and rookie Jaylon Ferguson to just step in without drop-off and growing pains is asking a lot. The good news is Football Outsiders ranked the Ravens first in their DVOA defensive metric when failing to pressure, again illustrating the secondary’s value. They’ll lean on that more heavily this year.

3. Mark Ingram will give Baltimore its first 1,000-yard rusher since Justin Forsett.

Frank Gore averaged 268 carries per season in Greg Roman’s four-year run in San Francisco and LeSean McCoy was on a similar workload pace in an injury-abbreviated 2015 season in Buffalo, dispelling the myth that the new Ravens offensive coordinator prefers a timeshare at the running back position. That’s not to say 2018 leading rusher Gus Edwards and rookie fourth-round pick Justice Hill won’t have roles, but the Ravens gave Ingram $6.5 million guaranteed for a reason after they had already averaged 5.1 yards per carry over the final seven regular-season games last year. Ingram’s career-high 230 carries two years ago seems like a reasonable mark for him to approach or even surpass.

4. Mark Andrews and Patrick Onwuasor will take a step forward.

It’s easy envisioning Andrews as Baltimore’s leading receiver with Jackson’s passing strength being over the middle and the wide receivers being so inexperienced. Volume remains a question, but seeing the 2018 third-round pick produce 2002-03 Todd Heap-like numbers wouldn’t be shocking. We’ve spent so much time discussing the pass rush this summer that we forget Onwuasor will be replacing four-time Pro Bowl selection C.J. Mostly and only played 41.9 percent of defensive snaps last year. The Ravens wanted Mosley back before offers from the New York Jets became too lucrative, but Onwuasor will be steady enough to ease concerns about the position, even if inside linebacker won’t be viewed as a strength.

5. Gus Edwards and Jimmy Smith will take a step back.

Edwards won’t go by the wayside like recent season leading rushers like Alex Collins, Terrance West, and Forsett, but he’ll have a reduced role and could even lose backup touches to the speedy Hill as the year progresses. The 2018 rookie free agent averaged an impressive 5.2 yards per carry last season, but his best bet might be short-yardage situations and a bigger fourth-quarter share of carries when the Ravens lead. Entering the final year of his contract, Smith is now 31 and has plenty of wear on the tires after a number of injuries over the years. The veteran cornerback had an uneven training camp, but he has much incentive to prove his value, whether in Baltimore or elsewhere on the free-agent market.

6. Ben Powers will be starting at left guard by the bye week.

The late-summer signs pointed to Bradley Bozeman beginning the season as the starting left guard, but we won’t know for sure until Sunday and this position remains a week-to-week evaluation anyway. Ideally, Powers, a fourth-round rookie from Oklahoma, would be ready to take over in the way Orlando Brown Jr. did at right tackle last October, but he struggled with first-team reps early this summer.

7. A rough November will cost the Ravens their chance at winning the AFC North.

The month of October has frequently been the bane of John Harbaugh’s existence in the past, but the November pain won’t be because of New England’s Sunday night trip to Baltimore. The Ravens will take full advantage of their Week 8 bye to knock off Tom Brady and the Patriots, but three straight losses will follow as they play at Cincinnati and host Houston with both teams coming off their byes, a tricky scheduling quirk not to be overlooked. The month concludes with a long trip to Los Angeles to play the Rams on a Monday night, another defeat that will have the Ravens’ playoff hopes looking bleak.

8. Miles Boykin will tie the franchise rookie record for touchdown receptions with seven.

First-round pick Marquise Brown missing Friday’s practice was a reminder that early expectations should be tempered after he missed so much valuable practice time in the spring and summer and is still managing his surgically-repaired foot to some degree. Meanwhile, Boykin was impressive during the summer and presents a 6-foot-4, 220-pound target with speed for a quarterback whose accuracy issues aren’t a big secret. Boykin, a third-round pick from Notre Dame, won’t put up monster numbers overall, but he will offer a nice boost inside the red zone, an area where the Ravens’ revamped offense struggled down the stretch last year. He’ll tie the record shared by Torrey Smith (2011) and Marlon Brown (2013).

9. Marlon Humphrey, Marshal Yanda, and Earl Thomas will be named to the Pro Bowl.

After being voted Ravens MVP by the local media last year and receiving more praise for his play this offseason, Humphrey appears primed to become Baltimore’s first Pro Bowl cornerback since Chris McAlister in 2006. Meanwhile, Yanda will continue to add to a resume that will receive strong Hall of Fame consideration with his eighth trip to the Pro Bowl in the last nine years. Some intrigue remains over just how close Thomas will be to his old self after his second broken left leg in a three-season period, but he’ll extend the Ravens’ streak of sending a safety to the Pro Bowl to four straight years. Left tackle Ronnie Stanley and Andrews will be named Pro Bowl alternates.

10. A December rally will lead to a 9-7 finish and another trip to the playoffs.

A 5-6 record and plenty of outside doubts entering the final month won’t stop the Ravens from getting hot and reeling off three straight wins to put themselves back in wild-card position. A last-minute defeat at Cleveland in Week 16 will look like the death knell, but the Browns will “Brown” their playoff spot away in a season-ending loss at Cincinnati while the Ravens will regroup to beat the AFC North champion Steelers, who will only be playing for playoff seeding in Week 17. Baltimore will follow that up with a road playoff win over the Texans before bowing out in the divisional round, ending a promising year for a young team with plenty of salary cap space and draft capital going into 2020.

Bonus Super Bowl pick no one asked for: Kansas City 30, Philadelphia 24

I just can’t stomach predicting another championship for New England, so I’ll go with Chiefs head coach Andy Reid finally getting over the hump against the team he coached for 14 seasons.

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judon

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Twelve Ravens thoughts entering start of 2019 season

Posted on 03 September 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens counting down to Sunday’s kickoff of the 2019 regular season, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Lamar Jackson heard the criticism all offseason and put in the work to improve his passing by all accounts. How big a step forward he takes remains to be seen, but he was in command of the offense and threw more consistently all summer. I can’t wait to watch him.

2. The 22-year-old will be surrounded by plenty of youth as 14 of Baltimore’s 24 offensive players (not including hybrid defensive tackle/fullback Patrick Ricard) are in their first or second season. That could make for an uncomfortable downside, but the ceiling is exciting, especially at the skill positions.

3. The Wink Martindale effect eases some concern with the pass rush, but you still need individuals to win 1-on-1 matchups. Beyond Matthew Judon, I’m not confident the defensive front has the rushers to consistently do this, which is going to put more pressure on their secondary than the opposing quarterback.

4. Willie Henry went from looking like he could start and be a major part of the interior pass rush to being waived and going unclaimed by the other 31 teams. Dropping 20 pounds from his listed 2017 playing weight (308 pounds) clearly didn’t pay off for a once-promising player.

5. Chris Wormley being the only true 5-technique defensive end on the roster says much about the evolution of NFL defenses. You’ll still hear “front seven” in conversation, but the league used base personnel only 25 percent of the time last year, creating less need to carry so many interior linemen.

6. It was a tough summer for Baltimore’s heralded 2016 fourth round. Henry and Alex Lewis are gone, Tavon Young and Kenneth Dixon are on injured reserve, and only Chris Moore remains on the active roster. The group was very promising, but even the above-average Young has missed two whole seasons.

7. All eyes are on left guard, but did anyone else find it strange that Orlando Brown Jr. played 18 snaps in the preseason finale while the likes of Chris Moore, James Hurst, and even rookies Miles Boykin and Justice Hill were held out? Brown didn’t play in last summer’s finale.

8. I’m surprised how many questioned whether three-time Pro Bowl selection Justin Bethel would make the roster despite the Ravens — who were already deep at cornerback — giving him $1 million guaranteed in the opening week of free agency. This is the 12th year of the John Harbaugh era. Special teams matter.

9. Jaleel Scott was in danger of not making the team as a fourth-round rookie last year if not for a hamstring injury that landed him on IR. A team official noted this spring how much he’d improved, and Scott carried that over with a strong preseason. Good for him.

10. Members of the practice squad serve varying functions, but De’Lance Turner and Maurice Canady are solid insurance policies should a need arise at running back or cornerback. Re-signing them was a plus for organizational depth.

11. Perhaps a deal is being completed as we speak, but I was a little surprised Eric DeCosta didn’t make a trade for a veteran offensive lineman or a pass rusher with so much activity throughout the league over the weekend. Of course, he had already pulled off three August trades.

12. The Kaare Vedvik saga reinforces how desperate contenders can be for a kicker and how blessed the Ravens have been — one nightmare aside. Baltimore got a fifth-rounder, the New York Jets wound up with a kicker they’d previously attempted to acquire for nothing, and Minnesota has egg on its face.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 26-13 preseason win over Green Bay

Posted on 16 August 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens topping Green Bay in a 26-13 final for their 15th straight preseason win, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Established veterans often coast through the early weeks of the preseason, but Matthew Judon reminded everyone he’s playing for a contract with two back-side pursuit plays resulting in a sack and a third-down stop on a screen pass. The closing speed he showed was very impressive.

2. Tavon Young’s neck injury brings much attention to the nickel corner position, but neither Cyrus Jones nor Anthony Averett impressed in that spot Thursday. I’m confident defensive coordinator Wink Martindale will make it work, but the Ravens will miss Young’s talents in that important role.

3. Jermaine Eluemunor’s strong performance is why coaches have been patient with him despite the well-documented growing pains. He rebounded from last week’s struggles in a major way, even if he still needs to block through the whistle more consistently. Eluemunor also held up pretty well as the backup left tackle.

4. The lack of separation at outside linebacker behind Judon was telling as Tyus Bowser, Tim Williams, Jaylon Ferguson, and Shane Ray all saw action into the fourth quarter. Ferguson seeing action much earlier than last week speaks to his stock rising while Ray still hasn’t distinguished himself.

5. We knew about the speed with his 40-yard dash time, but Justice Hill continues to show physicality not indicative of a 200-pound running back with so many broken tackles. Hill, Lamar Jackson, and a healthy Marquise Brown all on the field together could be an unsettling sight for defensive coordinators.

6. Coverage is his primary focus, but Marlon Humphrey shedding a block from veteran right tackle Bryan Bulaga to make a tackle for a loss is another reason why he’s becoming one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks. His dominant play on the outside is even more critical now after the Young injury.

7. I wasn’t positive Chris Moore was a lock to make the roster after his quiet start to camp and Seth Roberts’ early performance, but Moore likely removed any lingering doubt Thursday. Meanwhile, Roberts isn’t helping his case being sidelined with an injury while Jaleel Scott pushes for a job.

8. The Ravens may forgo keeping a fourth inside linebacker, but Otaro Alaka continued to position himself nicely with a game-high six tackles and two for a loss. Alaka shows good closing speed and would be an obvious practice-squad candidate if he doesn’t make the 53-man roster.

9. Miles Boykin not catching a pass on three targets isn’t alarming, but his failure to curl toward the line of scrimmage on Jackson’s third-down rollout on the first drive reminds that he still needs polish, which is OK. Despite the summer hype, he wasn’t drafted as a finished product.

10. Justin Bethel missed two tackles on special teams and was playing cornerback late in the second half. I’ve dismissed previous questions about his roster status since the Ravens guaranteed him $1 million early in free agency for his special-teams ability, but Thursday wasn’t a good showing.

11. Many were critical of the illegal blindside block penalty on Willie Snead that negated Jackson’s highlight touchdown run, but the call seemed to be in line with the NFL’s expanded blindside block rule (2:00 mark). We’ll see just how vigilant officials are about calling this in the regular season.

12. If you need a reminder of how little the preseason resembles real games, Jackson has yet to target Mark Andrews in two games with the pair not even being on the field together that much. The rapport they’ve shown in camp suggests that’s some sandbagging from Greg Roman.

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Ravens hoping to begin gaining clarity with position battles next week

Posted on 03 August 2019 by Luke Jones

The Ravens hope to see business pick up next week as it pertains to their starting position battles.

Not only will they play their first preseason game against Jacksonville next Thursday, but the Jaguars arrive in Owings Mills Monday for the first of two joint practices that should ratchet up the competition level. To this point, the Ravens haven’t gained much clarity at outside linebacker or left guard, two of their biggest question marks entering the 2019 season.

Veteran Pernell McPhee has lined up as the rush linebacker opposite strong-side outside linebacker Matthew Judon for the first-team base defense, but McPhee has always been more effective as a rotational player ideally moving inside to rush in passing situations. You hope the 30-year-old receiving the early honors is more a sign of respect and a motivational tactic for younger options, but 2017 draft picks Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams, free-agent newcomer Shane Ray, and rookie third-round pick Jaylon Ferguson haven’t consistently stood out beyond the flash play here or there. There’s also the important question of how effectively these unproven options will set the edge against the run, which remained an underrated part of former Raven Terrell Suggs’ game even in his later years.

“When we get into the games, the actual preseason games, you’ll have better questions and I’ll have better answers for you on the pass rushers,” defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said. “But I love the way we’re competing. I love how fast we are.”

The competition at left guard has been even more disconcerting with injuries and conditioning concerns muddying the waters. Fourth-year lineman Alex Lewis has yet to practice as he works his way back to full strength from offseason shoulder surgery while third-year lineman Jermaine Eluemunor — who surprisingly lined up as the starter throughout spring workouts — has missed at least part of four camp practices due to minor injury or conditioning concerns.

Rookie Ben Powers received most of first-team reps over the first week , but that appeared to be more a result of attrition than the talented fourth-round pick from Oklahoma being overly advanced in his development. In a perfect world, Powers would win the job since he has the most upside — and team control — of the aforementioned options, but head coach John Harbaugh didn’t offer a glowing endorsement when asked about the rookie working so much with the first team in the early days of camp.

“We don’t have a starter there. Who would you want me to put in there? He’s the guy right now,” Harbaugh said Thursday. “Jermaine has to get in shape still more, and those guys are competing along with James Hurst. James Hurst knows how to play the position, so we’re giving those younger guys the reps. We’ll see what happens.”

The Ravens gave Eluemunor another opportunity with the first team on Friday, but the 2017 fifth-round pick responded with two early false starts that resulted in him being forced to run laps as pre-snap penalties continue to plague the offense early in camp. Lewis remains the wild card if he returns to practice in the coming days as Harbaugh previously indicated an early August return for the oft-injured 2016 fourth-round pick who’s started 18 games in his career.

The position that’s gained the most clarity is inside linebacker where former undrafted free agent Chris Board has worked as the clear-cut starter next to Patrick Onwuasor. Martindale confirmed Board is ahead of 2018 fourth-round pick Kenny Young for the starting weak-side spot, but defensive back Anthony Levine also factors into that spot when the Ravens move into their dime package. Board appeared to receive more first-team reps in the position’s timeshare during spring workouts, but he’s taken virtually all base and nickel reps with Young relegated to the second team since the start of camp.

“He had a great offseason, and we challenged him on the things he needed to improve on and he went to work,” said linebackers coach Mike Macdonald about Board, who played more outside linebacker at North Dakota State. “He bulked up with some muscle and kept all his speed. He’s hammered out the playbook. He has a really good command of what we’re asking him to do, communicates well, and then when you turn the tape on, his speed is just hard to ignore.”

The next test for Board or any other unproven player vying for a starting position will come against the Jaguars as the Ravens will compete against someone other than themselves for the first time in 2019. The transition from spring workouts in shorts to training camp practices in full pads is always the first separator in competitions, but the coming week provides another checkpoint as coaches watch closely to see how young players handle live-game settings in August.

There’s still more than a month to go until the season opener in Miami, but the Ravens would love to begin gaining more clarity at these positions.

“You’d like for it to happen naturally and to be clear. That’s what you’d like,” said Harbaugh specifically about the offensive line. “You don’t want it to be clear because nobody is taking the reins. You want somebody to take the reins. Now, if more guys take the reins and make it tough on us, that would be even better. But we’re not there yet.”

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Twelve Ravens thoughts at start of training camp

Posted on 25 July 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens beginning their 24th training camp in Baltimore, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Brandon Williams carried on the tradition of driving Steve Bisciotti’s golf cart onto the field, but it was very different not seeing or hearing Terrell Suggs on the first day of practice. His trash talk and carrying on largely represented the soundtrack of training camp. Practice was much quieter.

2. Michael Pierce deserves credit for his candor discussing his weight and conditioning problems and the work he’s put in. He took a scale on his pre-planned trip to Italy and ate only seafood and lighter fare. He’s a better man than I would have been for laying off the pasta.

3. The start of practice was pretty ugly for Lamar Jackson, but he knocked off rust to throw the ball much better in the latter half. He was picked by Chuck Clark while rolling to his right, but Jackson made some strong intermediate and deep passes and showed more accuracy.

4. John Harbaugh said the offense “looked like it was the first day” as the line struggled to protect and the unit committed way too many pre-snap penalties. That’s typical for this time of year, but a run-first attack will need do the little things well to stay on schedule.

5. Patrick Onwuasor seems to be taking to a leadership role as he is now playing “Mike” linebacker and even offered an opening statement at the podium Thursday, a rarity for a player interview. He says he listened and learned plenty in his first three years to prepare for this opportunity.

6. Marquise Brown not being cleared for the first day was disappointing, but it’s wise not to push with the soreness he still feels when cutting. The sense is he should at least be a limited participant by next week, but concern will grow if that doesn’t happen. He needs reps.

7. After a hamstring injury limited him this spring, Miles Boykin showed good speed in his snaps with the first-team offense. He dropped a pretty deep ball from Jackson, but he rebounded to haul in a contested catch for a touchdown against Earl Thomas in coverage and made some other plays.

8. Despite failing his conditioning test and sitting out the first day, Shane Ray has a real opportunity to revitalize his career and carve out a big role if healthy. I’m not sure whether that says more about his spring work or the lack of confidence in the younger options.

9. Fellow veteran Pernell McPhee lined up as the starting rush linebacker opposite Matthew Judon on the first day. I’m interested to see how the 30-year-old’s reps are managed with his injury history in mind, but I still anticipate him being more of a situational inside rusher than anything else.

10. Ben Powers reaped the benefits of getting to play left guard with Alex Lewis and Jermaine Eluemunor not practicing and James Hurst filling in for Orlando Brown Jr. at right tackle on the first day. This competition is wide open, but the rookie fourth-round pick is definitely in the mix.

11. We’ve spotlighted the early-round draft misses in recent years, but the 2016 rookie class that included second- and third-round busts Kamalei Correa and Bronson Kaufusi also produced Judon, a fifth-round pick, as well as Onwuasor and Pierce, two undrafted free agents. Talk about terrific value.

12. One of the biggest surprises to begin camp was seeing a beard-free Marshal Yanda, a sight I couldn’t remember in my time on the beat. The seven-time Pro Bowl right guard appears to be in good shape entering his 13th season.

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2019 Ravens training camp preview: Outside linebackers

Posted on 23 July 2019 by Luke Jones

With training camp beginning Thursday and the preseason opener only a few weeks away, we’ll look at each Ravens position group before veterans begin reporting to Owings Mills for the first full-squad practice.

Cornerbacks
Running backs
Defensive line
Tight ends
Safeties
Offensive line
Inside linebackers
Wide receivers

We continue at outside linebacker, a position entering uncharted territory in 2019. For the first time in their history, the Ravens do not have an outside linebacker on the roster whom the organization drafted in the first round as Terrell Suggs was selected in 2003, Peter Boulware in 1997, and draft bust Craig Powell in 1995. With Suggs and Za’Darius Smith departing as free agents in March, Baltimore lost its career sacks leader and its top quarterback takedown man in 2018 as the pair combined for 15 1/2 sacks last season. Replacing that combination of experience and production won’t be easy, even if the Ravens were wise not to match the contracts each veteran fetched on the open market.

General manager Eric DeCosta is counting on a very deep secondary — where many more resources have been invested — to help pick up the slack as the Ravens need some combination of unproven youngsters and veteran reclamation projects to step up at outside linebacker. Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale will also need to build upon his creativity from last season when the Ravens frequently used deception and exotic looks to get after opposing quarterbacks. Even acknowledging those factors, outside linebacker is a very real question mark for a defense whose expectations remain very high after finishing first in the NFL in yards allowed last season.

Below is a look at the outside linebackers who stand out for various reasons:

The Man — Matthew Judon
Skinny: The 2016 fifth-round pick from Grand Valley State has been more solid than spectacular with 19 sacks over his first three years, but he took his game to another level down the stretch last season and finished 24th in pass rush grade among qualified edge defenders by Pro Football Focus, a career best. Strong against the run, capable in coverage, and seemingly still ascending as a rusher, Judon is entering a contract year and is the most complete outside linebacker on the roster. A strong 2019 would put him in position for a big free-agent payday, and Baltimore needs him to step up more than ever.

Old Reliable — Judon
Skinny: At first glance, Pernell McPhee might be the choice here as the only outside linebacker on the roster older than 26, but he had more missed games (15) than sacks (14) in his four seasons after leaving the Ravens to sign a lucrative contract with Chicago in 2014 and hasn’t registered a quarterback sack in his last 19 regular-season games. Judon has never missed a game due to injury in his career — he was a healthy scratch twice as a rookie — and also plays some special teams, making him pretty darn reliable.

Under Fire — Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams
Skinny: There are no more excuses for the 2017 second- and third-round picks who combined to play just 281 defensive snaps in their second season. With Suggs and Smith no longer in the rotation, there is an abundance of snaps to be won with their competition being a third-round rookie and two veterans who combined for one sack last season. The pair having totaled 5 1/2 sacks in 567 career snaps shows they have ability, but the two must prove in practices and games that they’re ready for meaningful roles.

Up-and-Comer — Jaylon Ferguson
Skinny: There was something fitting about the Ravens drafting the Louisiana Tech product after he broke Suggs’ Division I career sacks record, but Ferguson will need to develop quickly going from Conference USA to the NFL. Trying to gauge his progress in non-contact workouts this spring wasn’t easy since the 6-foot-5, 275-pound edge rusher is known primarily for his bull rush and physicality, but Ferguson will have his chance to shine and earn immediate snaps as a situational rusher if worthy.

Sleeper — Shane Ray
Skinny: The 2015 first-round pick appeared on his way to being a strong bookend for All-Pro linebacker Von Miller with eight sacks and 45 pressures in his second season in Denver, but chronic wrist problems have all but derailed his career as Ray collected just two sacks in 19 games over the last two years. Strong hands are critical to a pass rusher’s success, so there’s no diminishing the role of the wrist injuries in his decline. If Ray is finally healthy, however, a $1.2 million flier could be a steal for someone still just 26.

The Rest — Pernell McPhee, Aaron Adeoye, Markus Jones, Mike Onuoha
Skinny: If kept on a proper snap count to keep him fresh, McPhee is still capable of being disruptive and registered the best pass-rushing grade from PFF of any current Baltimore edge defender in 2018, albeit in just 203 snaps. The Ravens would prefer to use him as an interior rusher in passing situations like they did with Smith. … The 6-foot-6, 250-pound Adeoye previously played in the Alliance of American Football for the Birmingham Iron and in The Spring League.

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