Tag Archive | "Michael Crabtree"

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How did Ravens wide receivers stack up to rest of NFL in 2018?

Posted on 20 February 2019 by Luke Jones

The Ravens returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2014, but where did their players stack up across the NFL in 2018?

Whether it’s discussing the Pro Bowl or determining postseason awards, media and fans spend much time debating where players rank at each position, but few watch every player on every team extensively enough to form any type of an authoritative opinion.

Truthfully, how many times did you watch the offensive line of the Detroit Lions this season? What about the Oakland Raiders linebackers or the San Francisco 49ers cornerbacks?

That’s why I appreciate the grading efforts of Pro Football Focus while acknowledging these rankings shouldn’t be viewed as infallible or the gospel of evaluation. I can respect the exhaustive effort to grade players across the league when most of us watch only one team or one division on any kind of a consistent basis.

Below is a look at where Ravens wide receivers ranked at their positions followed by the positional outlook going into 2019:

Offensive linemen
Linebackers
Tight ends
Defensive linemen
Running backs
Cornerbacks

Willie Snead
2018 offensive snap count (including postseason): 821
PFF ranking: 56th among wide receivers
Skinny: The slot receiver was the most relevant of Baltimore’s wide receivers when Lamar Jackson took over at quarterback, serving as a reliable target over the middle of the field. Considering the uncertainty at the position, the $4 million Snead will command in 2019 is very reasonable.

Michael Crabtree
2018 offensive snap count (including postseason): 805
PFF ranking: 79th among wide receivers
Skinny: Signed to be a major red-zone threat, Crabtree caught three touchdowns in the regular season and owned the third-highest drop rate in the NFL, per PFF. It’s unclear whether a $9.333 million salary cap number for a receiver who’s barely cracked 600 yards in each of the last two years will be palatable.

John Brown
2018 offensive snap count (including postseason): 757
PFF ranking: 70th among wide receivers
Skinny: Brown made seven catches for 134 yards and a touchdown in a season-best Week 7 performance and appeared on his way to a 1,000-yard season and a big payday. However, the speedster had a total of 128 receiving yards in the eight games started by Jackson as drops also began mounting after the bye.

Chris Moore
2018 offensive snap count (including postseason): 467
PFF ranking: 98th among wide receivers
Skinny: The 2016 fourth-round pick didn’t build on his improvement in 2017, recording only one more catch and 52 fewer receiving yards in his third season. Moore remains an important special-teams contributor, but it’s difficult to view him as anything more than a No. 4 or No. 5 receiver.

2019 positional outlook

Trying to figure out this position is one of the great questions of the offseason, but that’s nothing new for the Ravens. With Crabtree a potential cap casualty and Brown an unrestricted free agent, Snead is the only safe bet to be a contributor at the position in Jackson’s first full year as a starter. The decision on Crabtree will be partly determined by how favorably Eric DeCosta views the free-agent market and this year’s draft class to be able to find a replacement. No Ravens player — other than Joe Flacco — suffered more from a business standpoint than Brown when Jackson took over and the offense shifted so dramatically toward the run. Brown said he was open to re-signing with the Ravens at the end of the season, but it’s difficult to see that after his one-year platform deal went awry down the stretch. The development of 2018 draft picks Jaleel Scott and Jordan Lasley will be worth monitoring this spring and summer, but neither showed enough last year to be viewed as suitable answers. Concern is more than warranted with the organization’s long-standing problems at this position, and free agents may not be all that eager to sign up with an offense that ran the ball more than anyone down the stretch in 2018.

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Examining Ravens’ top 11 salary cap numbers for 2019

Posted on 05 February 2019 by Luke Jones

The Ravens face their most intriguing offseason in years after making the playoffs for the first time since 2014 and transitioning to a new general manager and starting quarterback for 2019.

It’s no secret the draft is the lifeblood of any organization wanting to find — and maintain — prosperity, but teams need to receive appropriate production from their highest-paid veterans to maintain a balanced roster capable of competing for a Super Bowl championship. As of right now, the Ravens will devote $121.547 million in 2019 salary cap space to the 11 players possessing the highest cap numbers. The 2019 salary cap hasn’t yet been set, but it’s projected to rise from $177.2 million in 2018 to at least $188 million.

Below is a look at those 11 players:

1. QB Joe Flacco
2019 Week 1 age: 34
2019 cap number: $26.5 million
Synopsis: Flacco is the reason why I expanded from the normal 10 to the top 11 figures as Baltimore has already made clear its plans to move on from the veteran. Whether Eric DeCosta will be able to find a trade partner remains to be seen, but Flacco’s exit will create $10.5 million in cap savings while leaving $16 million in dead money on this year’s cap. My hope is the organization prioritizes building an offense around Lamar Jackson after using most of its meaningful draft capital and available cap dollars on the defense since Super Bowl XLVII. Flacco’s contract was a convenient excuse to overlook the entire truth.

2. CB Jimmy Smith
2019 Week 1 age: 31
2019 cap number: $15.85 million
Synopsis: Had the Ravens not restructured his deal in 2016 and 2017 to create cap space — and inflate his 2019 cap number in the process — I’d be more in favor of letting Smith play out the final year of his contract after he did perform better down the stretch last season. However, I just don’t see how this number is tenable for someone who’s played all 16 games in a season just twice in his career. The Ravens have done a good job building depth at cornerback, so it should be time to tap into that unless Smith agrees to a pay cut. Releasing him or working out a trade would save $9.5 million in cap space.

3. DT Brandon Williams
2019 Week 1 age: 30
2019 cap number: $14.17 million
Synopsis: Williams remains one of the better run-stopping nose tackles in the NFL, but his limitations as a pass rusher and the presence of Michael Pierce — regarded by some as a better player — haven’t quieted critics of the five-year, $52.5 million contract signed in 2017. A couple contract restructures have inflated Williams’ cap figures to over $14 million for each of the next three years, but the dead money involved makes it prohibitive to consider doing anything with his deal until next year at the earliest. He played in 50 percent of the defensive snaps in 2018, his lowest share in a season in which he’s played in all games.

4. S Tony Jefferson
2019 Week 1 age: 27
2019 cap number: $12.657 million
Synopsis: The strong safety was better in 2018 than he was in his first season with Baltimore, but this is another example where it’s more than fair to question whether the Ravens are getting enough value for what they’re paying with Jefferson’s contract currently ranking ninth among NFL safeties in average annual value, according to OverTheCap.com. Two restructures and the uncertain future of several defensive veterans more than likely keep Jefferson in the plans for 2019, but seeing him have the fourth-highest cap number on the team doesn’t add up compared to the kind of player he’s been.

5. G Marshal Yanda
2019 Week 1 age: 34
2019 cap number: $10.125 million
Synopsis: Even with his advancing age, Yanda is the first player on the list who remains a relative bargain considering he just made his seventh Pro Bowl in the last eight years — he missed nearly the entire 2017 season with an ankle injury — and his contract currently ranks 13th in average annual value earned among right guards. Any questions about his future should only be based on how much longer he wants to continue playing. Frankly, the Ravens should be exploring his interest in a reasonable extension if he wants to strengthen his case for possible induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame one day.

6. WR Michael Crabtree
2019 Week 1 age: 31
2019 cap number: $9.333 million
Synopsis: Coming off a second straight year in which he barely cracked 600 receiving yards, Crabtree would appear to be a strong candidate to become a cap casualty, but this year’s free-agent market for receivers is lukewarm and the organization’s history of drafting at the position ranges from poor to not even trying. That makes you wonder if the Ravens could keep Crabtree around for the sake of continuity, but his 16.9-percent drop rate is difficult to overlook. The veteran might be able to help the position group’s floor, but there isn’t much upside there anymore. Cutting him creates $4.667 million in space.

7. S Eric Weddle
2019 Week 1 age: 34
2019 cap number: $9.25 million
Synopsis: Trying to assess Weddle’s value is difficult as his mental prowess was credited by players and coaches as the reason why the defense was so deceptive. However, he finished his 12th season without an interception — he had a combined 10 in the previous two years — and a career-low three pass breakups. The Ravens could use more range at free safety, but there’s no guarantee they’ll find it immediately and Weddle’s leadership would be hard to replace. A pay cut with incentives would be ideal, but he’s already backed down from his initial vow not to play elsewhere. Releasing him saves $7.5 million in space.

8. CB Brandon Carr
2019 Week 1 age: 33
2019 cap number: $7 million
Synopsis: Carr continued his remarkable streak of never missing a game over his 11-year career and was second on the team in defensive snaps, providing very solid play on the outside and effectively filling in at the slot corner position when required. Despite Carr’s age, I’d much prefer his reasonable $6 million payout for 2019 compared to the $9.5 million base salary the Ravens are scheduled to give the oft-injured Smith. His leadership on defense could also become more critical depending on what happens with the likes of Weddle and free agents Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley.

9. OT Ronnie Stanley
2019 Week 1 age: 25
2019 cap number: $6.517 million
Synopsis: The Ravens will need to decide this spring whether to exercise their fifth-year option on Stanley, but that decision should be a no-brainer. Stanley hasn’t blossomed into the Pro Bowl left tackle Baltimore hoped he would become when selecting him sixth overall in the 2016 draft, but he’s been a steady contributor playing through a series of nagging ailments over his first three seasons.

10. K Justin Tucker
2019 Week 1 age: 29
2019 cap number: $5.145 million
Synopsis: Tucker is still regarded by many as the best kicker in the NFL as he enters the final year of his current contract, making him a logical candidate for an extension that could lower his 2019 cap figure a bit and keep him in Baltimore for several more years.

11. WR Willie Snead
2019 Week 1 age: 26
2019 cap number: $5 million
Synopsis: The slot receiver was one of Jackson’s favorite targets down the stretch and is the only sure thing in Baltimore’s group of wide receivers entering the offseason, making his compensation reasonable.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 23-17 loss to Chargers

Posted on 08 January 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens’ season coming to an end in a 23-17 playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. I understand John Harbaugh wanted to make it a one-score game when he had Justin Tucker try a 50-yard field goal on fourth-and-2 late in the third quarter, but the decision was surprising based on analytics and his team’s psyche. Even before the miss, it felt like a demoralizing choice.

2. The Ravens made clear they were just about finished with Joe Flacco during the draft and reached the point of no return when Harbaugh officially benched him. Considering the Chargers’ pass rush, I didn’t have an issue with leaving someone who hadn’t played in over two months on the bench.

3. In the big picture that shouldn’t be ignored, Lamar Jackson remaining in the game and finding some late success was important. Harbaugh benching him at the first sign of trouble would have been a tough message for Jackson — and the entire locker room — to forget this offseason.

4. Lost in the disappointment was another strong defensive performance as the Chargers were held to one touchdown and Philip Rivers averaged just 5.0 yards per passing attempt. Prior to the fourth quarter, this game very much reminded me of the excruciating 2006 playoff loss to Indianapolis.

5. Was fumbling on three consecutive offensive plays or going two hours in real time between pass completions the more embarrassing feat? It’s remarkable the Ravens didn’t lose by four touchdowns.

6. Matthew Judon registered two tackles for a loss and five quarterback hits in another superb effort. He really elevated his play down the stretch, which is significant since he’s the only starting-caliber outside linebacker under contract for 2019.

7. James Hurst is a hard worker and a high-character individual, but Sunday was a reminder that he’s better suited to be a versatile backup and not a starter. Pro Football Focus credited him with surrendering three sacks and a quarterback hit and gave him a 0.0 pass-blocking grade. Ouch.

8. Scheduled to become a restricted free agent, Patrick Onwuasor elevated his standing down the stretch as he recorded another forced fumble and a sack. With C.J. Mosley uncertain to return as an unrestricted free agent, Onwuasor’s emergence is even more significant.

9. The snap count was skewed by the final two drives, but I still can’t believe heavy formations and power rushing weren’t bigger factors against the Chargers’ quarter defense employing seven defensive backs. Nick Boyle played a season-low 18 snaps while Maxx Williams’ 17 were his fewest since Week 12.

10. Two fourth-quarter touchdowns don’t make up for a disappointing season from Michael Crabtree. It’ll be interesting to see how the wide receiver position plays out this offseason after the dramatic shift toward the running game, but his $9.33 million salary cap number for 2019 doesn’t sound appealing.

11. Playing fewer snaps than last season resulted in just 1 1/2 sacks after Week 7 for Terrell Suggs, who reconfirmed his desire to continue playing for the Ravens while acknowledging that may not happen. Even if Suggs signs a cheap short-term deal, Eric DeCosta really must address this position.

12. I understand players reacting to fans booing in the aftermath of Sunday’s loss and admire their desire to stick up for Jackson, but they needed to move on by Monday’s media availability instead of fanning the flames. Robert Griffin III provided both an experienced and measured response HERE (4:00 mark).

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Ravens-Raiders: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 24 November 2018 by Luke Jones

Sunday brings the final calm before a December storm that could impact the Ravens for years to come.

John Harbaugh’s team would move back above the .500 mark with a win over Oakland, but three of the next four on the road after that will determine whether the Ravens return to the playoffs for the first time in four years. Failing to do so will likely spark substantial changes to both the coaching staff and the roster.

Simply put, a victory over the 2-8 Raiders is both expected and necessary.

It’s time to go on the record as these AFC teams meet for the fourth consecutive season. Baltimore holds a 7-3 advantage in the all-time regular-season series and won the only postseason encounter in the 2000 AFC Championship. The Ravens have won five of the past seven games against Oakland dating back to the 2006 season.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Lamar Jackson will have fewer than 15 carries, but he will pass for 185 yards and a touchdown. With the Raiders having a full game tape and 26 carries being unsustainable on a weekly basis, Jackson won’t be setting records with his legs, but he’ll remain a big part of the ground attack. What will be more interesting is how much the coaching staff allows him to do as a passer against an Oakland defense that’s been poor in most areas. Jackson will have another up-and-down passing day, but he’ll make more throws in his second start and find ex-Raider Michael Crabtree for a touchdown.

2. Tight end Jared Cook will catch the Raiders’ lone touchdown of the game. Oakland has been gutted at the wide receiver position, but Cook has been a standout performer, leading the team with 577 receiving yards and four touchdown receptions and grading as Pro Football Focus’ sixth-best tight end. It’s no secret the Ravens defense has had issues covering tight ends — and the middle of the field in general — so look for Raiders quarterback Derek Carr to lean heavily on Cook for what modest success they’ll find moving the ball on Sunday.

3. There will be no takeaways, but Baltimore will collect four sacks. It’s been seven calendar weeks since the Ravens intercepted a pass and five weeks since they recovered a fumble. The Raiders have been average in the giveaway department despite their record. In other words, I’m not predicting another Ravens takeaway until it actually happens again. That said, Oakland has given up 33 sacks and will struggle to gain separation in pass routes, which will force Carr to hold the ball at times. This will allow the Ravens defense to break a slump that’s consisted of only three sacks over the last four games.

4. Three Ravens players will rush for 50 or more yards. Last week’s combination of Jackson and Gus Edwards was a terrific story, but I don’t believe it signals the end for Alex Collins, who has been successful in three-wide sets and with Jackson on the field despite his disappointing overall numbers. In an effort to protect their rookie quarterback from taking too many hits, the Ravens will give the ball to Collins more often while Edwards maintains a workload similar to last week. The rushing total won’t be as lucrative as last week (267), but Jackson, Edwards, and Collins will have strong days on the ground.

5. The Ravens will remain in relatively comfortable control throughout a 23-13 win over Oakland. It was easy to get carried away with the understandable excitement over Jackson’s first start, but Baltimore scored 24 points against a defense giving up 32.1 per game this season and surrendered 21 points to an offense that was without its best player. I’m intrigued with Jackson’s potential for the future, but the Ravens continuing last week’s playing style isn’t going to lead to many blowouts, which leads me to believe this one will stay a little closer than many are anticipating. I expect Jackson to neither struggle mightily nor play unbelievable football in his second start, which won’t do Harbaugh any favors in deciding how to handle the quarterback position in the month of December. That debate remains on hold, however, as the Ravens take care of business against an inferior opponent to improve to 6-5.

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Jackson preparing for second start as Flacco remains sidelined

Posted on 21 November 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — With Joe Flacco still recovering from a hip injury, the Ravens are preparing to go with rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson for the second straight week.

Head coach John Harbaugh admitted after Sunday’s win over Cincinnati that it would be difficult for Flacco to play against Oakland in Week 12, and the 11th-year veteran missing his fourth straight practice on Wednesday provided further confirmation. Coming off a franchise-record performance in which he ran for 117 yards on 27 carries, Jackson is aiming to increase his production in the passing game in his second NFL start — and keep his wide receivers happy in the process.

“I need to get these guys the ball. I don’t want them to think I’m just out here and, ‘Oh, he’s going to run every time he gets a chance,'” said Jackson, who completed 13 of 19 passes for 150 yards and an interception against the Bengals. “My eyes are always up the field. I have to get those guys the ball because they’re helping me out. They’re not out there to block — that’s not their job. Their job is to catch the ball [and] help us win games.”

Much was made about slot receiver Willie Snead’s sideline outburst as the offense settled for the eventual game-winning 24-yard field goal in the fourth quarter, but Snead and fellow veterans Michael Crabtree and John Brown have downplayed any perceived frustration, citing the Ravens snapping their three-game losing streak coming out of the bye week and the rookie making only his first start.

Jackson went out of his way to tell Crabtree that he needs to get him the ball more as he caught only one pass for seven yards on three targets, all season lows.

“We won the game, so I told him to not even put too much on getting targets and all of that,” Crabtree said. “Just worry about winning, and we came out with the ‘W.’ I’m excited to go out there this week and see what he’s got. This is his second game, so he’s just adding on.”

As you’d expect, Jackson received many congratulatory messages after winning his first NFL start, but his favorites came from Doug Williams and onetime Raven Randall Cunningham, two former NFL quarterbacks with whom he’s had past communication. Williams was the first African-American starting quarterback to win a Super Bowl while Cunningham’s dual-threat ability helped revolutionize a position that features more mobile passers than ever today.

“Those are the guys who paved the way for us,” Jackson said. “Without those guys, we probably wouldn’t be in situations that we are, so hats off to those guys. Them congratulating me? From the ‘GOATs?’ I’m like, ‘Yes, that’s cool.'”

In addition to Flacco, offensive tackle James Hurst (back) remained absent from practice and is in danger of missing his fifth straight game. Cornerback Tavon Young also missed Wednesday’s session with what was listed as a groin injury

After missing his second straight game with an ankle injury on Sunday, outside linebacker Tim Williams was a limited participant.

Left tackle Ronnie Stanley surprisingly wasn’t listed on the injury report despite playing through an ankle injury that forced him off the field at a few points against the Bengals.

“I was very impressed with Ronnie’s game, and he has a pretty good high ankle sprain,” Harbaugh said on Monday. “That’s never easy; that’s painful. He dealt with it. He had to come out a couple times, but he wanted to get right back in there and play. I was very proud of him.”

The Raiders put out an estimated injury report after only conducting a walk-through on Wednesday.

Below is Wednesday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: QB Joe Flacco (right hip), OT James Hurst (back), DB Anthony Levine (ankle), S Eric Weddle (non-injury), G Marshal Yanda (non-injury), CB Tavon Young (groin)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: LB Tim Williams (ankle)

OAKLAND
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: WR Martavis Bryant (knee), CB Leon Hall (back)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: C Rodney Hudson (ankle), S Karl Joseph (ribs), RB Doug Martin (ankle), OT Kolton Miller (knee), WR Jordy Nelson (knee), OL Kelechi Osemele (knee), DE Frostee Rucker (neck), CB Daryl Worley (shoulder)
FULL PARTICIPATION: CB Gareon Conley (groin), WR Dwayne Harris (foot), G Gabe Jackson (pectoral)

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Ravens-Panthers: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 27 October 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens need to finish.

If losing a 10-point fourth-quarter lead to New Orleans last week weren’t enough, Carolina erasing a 17-0 deficit at Philadelphia should have Baltimore’s full attention for Sunday’s tilt in Charlotte. The Ravens are the superior team in most statistical categories, but the Panthers found a way last week while John Harbaugh’s team wilted too much in the fourth quarter. It’s a razor-thin margin that’s the difference between a 6-1 start and the current 4-3 mark, but the Ravens are still trying to graduate from good to really good.

It’s time to go on the record as these teams meet for just the six time in the all-time regular-season series with the Panthers holding a 3-2 advantage. Baltimore has won the last two meetings, the most recent being a 38-10 blowout at M&T Bank Stadium on Sept. 28, 2014.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Justin Tucker will connect on a field goal from beyond 50 yards. His missed extra point understandably remained a big story throughout the week, so the two-time Pro Bowl kicker’s next opportunity can’t come soon enough after much support from teammates, coaches, and Ravens fans. According to special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg, 272 extra points have been missed by 54 kickers since Tucker entered the league in 2012, which is appropriate perspective on an individual who’s won the Ravens a slew of games. That said, the tiniest bit of unknown remains until he makes his next kick.

2. Cam Newton will run for a touchdown and throw for another. Between the playful comments of Eric Weddle and Wink Martindale, the Panthers quarterback is apparently like a … fast, middle-school-aged dinosaur with a beard? All kidding aside, Newton is having one of the best seasons of his career so far and will be a big problem if the Ravens aren’t disciplined in their pass-rushing lanes. He’s dealing with a sore right shoulder, however, and hasn’t been throwing the deep ball that frequently as it is. A key will be the effectiveness of Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, who was quiet last week.

3. John Brown and Michael Crabtree will each make a touchdown catch on the outside. Joe Flacco has lived in the short middle portion of the field — going there with a third of his attempts — but that’s where Panthers linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis loom, which will likely mean a quiet day for tight ends and running backs that haven’t been all that impactful in recent weeks anyway. The good news is Brown and Crabtree should find some room on the outside against cornerbacks James Bradberry and Donte Jackson. If not, the Ravens will likely struggle to move the ball.

4. Christian McCaffrey will lead all players in yards from scrimmage. The Panthers running back is dynamic, averaging 4.9 yards per carry and making 40 receptions in six games. What makes him even more effective is Newton’s threat to run, which allows Carolina coordinator Norv Turner to use motion and misdirection to set up chunk runs. The Ravens rank fifth in the NFL in yards per carry allowed (3.8) — the Panthers average 5.2 yards per attempt — but their heavy use of the dime package occasionally leaves them vulnerable against an offense unafraid to run in some unorthodox spots.

5. A fourth-quarter takeaway will help the Ravens secure a much-needed 20-17 victory. Last week was an example of how difficult it is for a defense to sustain greatness for 60 minutes without a game-changing turnover — not counting Alvin Kamara’s opening-drive fumble on a fourth-down run that was already blown up — or a collection of sacks. The Ravens are tied for 21st in the league with just seven takeaways, which borders on shocking considering their other impressive numbers and the fact that they led the NFL in that category a year ago. Something has to give eventually, right? The Panthers do remind you of a better version of Tennessee in terms of their style of play, which should still bode well as Baltimore tries to bounce back from last week’s disappointment. Injuries along the offensive line and to starting cornerback Marlon Humphrey aren’t ideal, but Flacco and the Ravens offense will do just enough and the defense will finally get a clutch turnover to secure a really important win.

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Ravens need to steady October ship, build momentum for pivotal stretch

Posted on 11 October 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco didn’t exactly go full Aaron Rodgers mode this week, but the sentiment wasn’t too far off.

Speaking on Michael Crabtree’s recent drops and how the veteran wide receiver approached the quarterback about his struggles during the plane ride home from Cleveland, Flacco passed along good advice to Crabtree — and to the rest of the Ravens and their fans for that matter.

“We’re all out there trying to do our part and make plays that are going to change the game,” Flacco said. “I think sometimes you just have to relax, and let the game come to you.”

Make no mistake, the 12-9 overtime loss to the Browns was an ugly one for the Ravens, who failed to reach double-digit scoring for the first time since back-to-back defeats to Jacksonville and Pittsburgh early last season. You couldn’t help but feel it canceled out what was thought to be a breakthrough the previous week when Baltimore beat the Steelers for its most impressive road victory in years.

But a win at Tennessee makes everything OK again.

Playing four of their first six games on the road and being one of only three teams in 2018 with a stretch of three consecutive road contests that concludes Sunday, the Ravens would have gladly taken a 4-2 start when the schedule was released back in April. Their plus-55 point differential is the best in the AFC, and they’re still tied for the third-best record in the conference after losing to a Browns team that is better than it’s been in recent years. With the top-ranked scoring defense in the NFL and an offense ranking in the top 12 in most statistical categories, the makings of a playoff team are certainly there.

A second straight loss, however, changes the mood substantially.

A 3-3 record with three straight games against 2017 playoff teams — New Orleans, Carolina, and the Steelers — before the Week 10 bye puts the Ravens in all-too-familiar and uncomfortable territory. Late-season losses to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati the last two years have been the final nail in the coffin, but poor Octobers since their last Super Bowl have regularly left the Ravens little margin for error down the stretch.

There’s no apparent rhyme or reason for a 6-15 mark in October games dating back to 2013, but it’s the kind of trend John Harbaugh’s team needs to buck to be playing in January once again. Thirteen of those games did come on the road, but a 2-6 home mark makes that a flimsier excuse. It’s why the Ravens haven’t entered their bye with a winning record since 2014, leaving them a steep climb in the second half to qualify for the postseason.

A 3-0 start to begin the 2016 season became a distant memory after an 0-4 October that featured a home defeat to an 8-7-1 Washington team and a road loss against the eventual 5-11 New York Jets. Falling 26-9 at home to the Steelers last year was bad enough, but dropping one at M&T Bank Stadium to an eventual 5-11 Chicago team two weeks later was inexcusable. Injuries in each of those stretches the last two years were a factor, but squeezing out an extra win in either case would have painted a different picture in late December. Frankly, it’s the difference between the playoffs and mediocrity.

That’s why you can’t help but feel Sunday’s game against the Titans — who won a playoff tiebreaker last year thanks in part to their Week 9 win over the Ravens — is as important as it gets for mid-October in terms of both playoff implications and Baltimore maintaining its early-season mojo. A win gives the Ravens their first 4-2 start since 2014 — the last time they made the playoffs — and leaves you thinking they’re capable of winning 10 or 11 games.

A loss makes it feel like you’re watching the “same old Ravens” of the last few years.

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Critical question comes into focus during Ravens’ ugly loss

Posted on 07 October 2018 by Luke Jones

Michael Crabtree had the chance to rewrite the story of a poor performance for both him and the Ravens offense in Cleveland on Sunday.

His third-down drop on the opening drive of the game had cost the Ravens a chance at a long field goal or a fourth-and-short situation inside the 40-yard line. On the next drive, he dropped a slant on a second-and-3 that would have put the offense inside the red zone and instead led the Ravens to settle for a field goal two plays later. Those were just two of many mistakes made by an offense that arrived at FirstEnergy Stadium flying high after a 3-1 start to 2018.

Still, with a minute to go in regulation and the Ravens trailing 9-6, Crabtree could have made it all better.

Signed to a three-year, $21 million contract in large part for the 25 touchdowns he’d caught over the previous three seasons in Oakland, Crabtree dropped a perfect pass from Joe Flacco in the back of the end zone on third-and-10 from the Cleveland 14. Instead of taking a 13-9 lead and likely stealing an ugly road win, the Ravens settled for the game-tying three points before eventually falling 12-9 on a Greg Joseph 37-yard field goal with two seconds left in overtime.

As much as last week’s win in Pittsburgh looked like a potential breakthrough for a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2014, Sunday felt like an all-too-familiar story for an offense that couldn’t live up to its end of the bargain. And it brought a lingering question about the Ravens’ passing game into sharper focus.

So much had been made about the balanced production for Baltimore’s wide receivers, tight ends, and running backs with eight or more players having caught passes in each of the first four games. Entering Sunday, eight players were on pace to catch 30 or more passes after only five Ravens made 30 or more receptions a year ago. Spreading the ball around is great when you’re clicking like the Ravens did over the season’s opening month, but it won’t always be that easy as we witnessed against an improved Browns defense.

When you’re struggling as Flacco and the offense did on Sunday, you need that safety net — “old reliable” if you will — to bail everyone out at the most critical moment. Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin, and Steve Smith fit that description to varying degrees over the last decade, making the play no one else was able to make at the most critical times. After not having that guy last season — Mike Wallace did his best down the stretch — the Ravens tabbed Crabtree to be that go-to target on third downs and inside the red zone. He didn’t need to be a 1,000-yard receiver, but they wanted him to handle the dirty work.

Instead, he entered Week 5 tied for the league lead in drops before adding three more against the Browns. He’s caught just 24 of his 46 targets in five games, the lowest percentage of his 10-year career. The slow start comes after Crabtree caught 58 passes for 618 receiving yards last season, his lowest totals since an injury-abbreviated 2013 campaign.

That’s not to say he won’t regroup to fill that intended role, but Flacco needs someone on which to lean in crunch time of close games. The speedy John Brown has been his most productive receiver, of course, but he’s more home-run hitter than the guy you’re targeting on third-and-7, at least based on how the Ravens have used him to this point. If it isn’t Crabtree, perhaps slot receiver Willie Snead or even rookie tight end Hayden Hurst eventually becomes that guy to make contested catches and move the chains when it matters most.

Someone has to do it if the Ravens expect a different result the next time they’re fighting for their lives late in a game. It’s a position they weren’t in during their three double-digit wins, but they’re sure to be in that tight spot again sooner than later.

To be clear, the Ravens wasted other opportunities as an ugly Flacco interception at the goal line cost them points in the second quarter, a Justin Tucker field goal was blocked at the end of the first half, and a Buck Allen fumble led to a Cleveland field goal midway through the third quarter. Baltimore didn’t really deserve a win after playing so poorly on the offensive side of the ball, but no play was bigger than Crabtree’s last-minute drop that could have made all those missteps — including the veteran receiver’s own — disappear.

There was other blame to go around, but that was the exact moment for which Baltimore had signed him in March.

Instead of escaping Cleveland with a victory, the Ravens offense took a step back and left a critical question unanswered for the coming weeks.

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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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Revamped Ravens passing attack shows off potential in big way

Posted on 09 September 2018 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The revamped Ravens passing game couldn’t have asked for a better season debut.

Say what you want about the Buffalo Bills, but 47-3 victories don’t happen often in the NFL. Only three other teams — Cincinnati, Kansas City, and Washington — won by more than one possession on Sunday, and their combined margin for victory (39) still didn’t add up to Baltimore’s.

How many times have we seen the Ravens slog through close games against lesser opponents in recent seasons?

Substantial rain and wind certainly weren’t conducive to quarterback Joe Flacco posting his best passer rating (121.7) since 2014 or throwing three touchdown passes — one each to veteran newcomers John Brown, Michael Crabtree, and Willie Snead — before exiting with a 40-0 lead early in the third quarter. The 33-year-old didn’t have three touchdowns in a game all last season and eclipsed Sunday’s passing total (236 yards) only five times in 2017, but he made sure his critics wouldn’t clamor for rookie first-round quarterback Lamar Jackson on Sunday.

The Ravens wasted no time on their opening drive, going 80 yards on 10 plays with an Alex Collins touchdown run serving as the exclamation point. It wasn’t even all perfect as a fumbled hand-off and an Alex Lewis holding penalty on consecutive snaps threatened to torpedo the drive before Flacco connected with Brown for a 29-yard gain into Buffalo territory.

“I think the first drive that we had today was really important for us,” said Flacco, who went 5-for-6 for 80 yards on that first scoring march. “I think it showed a little bit of what everybody can do, but we had [second-and-26] or something there, and we converted to get a first down. I think that was a huge step. Obviously, we went and scored a touchdown.

“That was a huge drive, a huge play on that drive. Without that, I don’t know if we would’ve set the tone quite in the same way.”

It’s important to note other free-agent wide receivers have flashed in their Baltimore debuts in recent years, keeping the feel-good touchdowns to Brown, Crabtree, and Snead in perspective. Jeremy Maclin caught a 48-yard touchdown in the opener at Cincinnati last year, and we all know how his one-year stay played out. Mike Wallace caught a 66-yard bomb in a Week 1 win over the Bills two years ago and even posted a 1,000-yard season, but the offense was still below average in 2016.

In those two season-opening wins, however, the Ravens offense had little more than a few nice moments, scoring a combined 33 points and mostly leaning on a dominant defense. Sunday was a demolition on both sides of the ball with the offense every bit the equal of a defense that didn’t surrender a first down in the first half against overwhelmed quarterback Nathan Peterman and the Bills offense.

With Flacco the healthiest he’s been in three years and the Baltimore front office finally putting forth more than a nominal effort in both free agency and the draft to improve the offense around him, Sunday’s performance felt different. It followed a summer in which the Ravens offense regularly challenged a talented defense in practices, something rarely seen in recent years.

“Our offense, obviously over the last couple years, has been up and down,” said safety Eric Weddle, who predicted a career year from Flacco back in July. “We’ve seen it. Obviously, you guys out at training camp have seen how they’ve gotten better over last season, and it showed today. Joe was putting the ball on the money. Without a couple drops here and there, his completion percentage would have been even better. When I said the [offensive] line could be a strength this year, it showed.

“It’s just a building block. This is a long season. You never want to get too high. You never want to overreact.”

In the post-game locker room, several players reiterated it being only one game as last year’s offense-challenged Ravens scored 38 or more points three times. The offensive line was strong in pass protection on Sunday, but the running game had only 16 yards on 11 carries in the first half, something that will need to improve moving forward.

But, as advertised, Brown showed off his speed, Crabtree shook off two early drops to show nifty footwork on a touchdown in the red zone, and Snead effectively worked the middle of the field. Flacco is also excited to throw to first-round tight end Hayden Hurst, who is currently sidelined with a stress fracture in his foot after an impressive training camp. In his absence, fellow rookie tight end Mark Andrews caught three passes for 31 yards, an encouraging sign after his quiet summer.

Time will tell whether the passing game builds on Sunday’s impressive win, but much that was drawn up on paper this offseason came to fruition in Week 1. And with that comes a growing confidence, something the Ravens will surely need traveling to play Cincinnati on Thursday night.

“It’s definitely good for us to go out there as a team and as an offense, speaking as the quarterback, to have the kind of game we did for sure,” Flacco said. “If we didn’t score 40 points and we scored 25 and we still won, it’s the same outcome. But there’s something to be said about going out there and playing the way we did today.

“Just for how everybody feels or how we feel as players, it can take you to another level.”

It’s a level that’s been all too elusive for a long time, but Flacco and a retooled passing game showed enticing potential on Sunday, whether it came against a bad opponent or not.

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