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Ravens defense hoping to give Deshaun Watson another “one of those days”

Posted on 17 September 2020 by Luke Jones

The Ravens defense was up to its old tricks in the season-opening 38-6 victory over Cleveland.

After leading the NFL in blitz rate at 54.9 percent of opposing dropbacks last season, Baltimore sent at least one extra rusher against Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield 54.8 percent of the time last Sunday, according to Pro Football Reference. It was how defensive coordinator Wink Martindale generated a pass rush in 2019, relying on numbers and superb coverage in the secondary to finish a respectable 16th in pressure rate and second in quarterback knockdowns despite ranking 21st in sacks with just 37. The difference Sunday was less efficiency in that department as the Ravens applied pressure just 11.9 percent of the time despite Mayfield’s inability to take advantage, a testament to the play on the back end.

What that means this week as the Ravens travel to Houston to take on two-time Pro Bowl quarterback Deshaun Watson remains to be seen, but last November’s 41-7 demolition of the Texans at M&T Bank Stadium doesn’t guarantee a similar result for Week 2. Watson played arguably the worst game of his 2019 season that day, registering just 169 passing yards, 12 rushing yards, an interception, and no touchdowns while the Ravens registered a season-high seven sacks.

The 25-year-old Clemson product lacks the consistency of Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson — the last two league MVPs — at this point in their respective careers, but he’s every bit as dangerous when playing at his best, meaning the Ravens can’t rest on their laurels.

“We’re not overconfident — trust me,” Martindale said. “He gets better every year. He’s a Pro Bowl quarterback for a reason. It was just one of those days last year. He is like a LeBron James-type player in the NFL instead of the NBA. He’s a general; he’s a point guard out there. We all respect his game.”

Watson’s style of play presents an interesting challenge as Pro Football Focus ranked his time to throw the second longest in the league behind only Jackson last season, which can lead to similarly spectacular throws and scrambles. But his style also leads to more sacks for which the Texans offensive line aren’t always to blame.

That was evident on the opening drive against the Ravens last year when he held the ball and scrambled in the pocket for a full 10 seconds before being stripped of the ball from behind for a turnover. That improvisation and patience are a double-edged sword, however, as Baltimore can’t ask its secondary to cover quite that long and expect similar results in the first road game of the season.

The pass rush needs the proper balance of discipline and explosiveness to contain a quarterback who so often goes against the grain.

“That’s what he does. He actually holds the ball longer than anybody in the league,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “I think their offensive line does a good job — the scheme is part of that — but it’s really mainly him. And he does it to create opportunities for the pass game. He’ll throw it. He’ll throw it to anybody. He’ll throw it deep. He’ll throw it short. He’ll throw it to every different receiver — you saw that last week — and he’ll run.”

“Different receiver” is a sore subject in Houston these days after Texans coach Bill O’Brien’s decision to trade four-time Pro Bowl selection DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona, leaving Watson without an elite No. 1 target. Despite a couple uncharacteristic drops in that loss against the Ravens, Hopkins was still Houston’s best player, catching seven passes for 80 yards.

Now, Watson is leaning on the oft-injured Will Fuller and the oft-traded Brandin Cooks as his top wide receivers while hoping former Pro Bowl selection David Johnson — acquired from the Cardinals in the Hopkins deal — brings some juice to the running back position. The results were mixed in the Texans’ 34-20 loss to the Super Bowl champion Chiefs in the season-opening game.

Of course, the Ravens aren’t the same on defense as that day they clobbered the Texans with changes at all three levels of their defense. Watson would be wise to test rookie inside linebackers Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison with underneath and intermediate throws to his tight ends and running backs. Third-year safety DeShon Elliott held up well in his first NFL start replacing Earl Thomas, but he’ll need to show strong discipline on the back end of the defense, especially when Watson improvises.

“With Watson running around and the things he can do and extend plays and the throws he makes on the run, it’s going to be very, very important,” Harbaugh said. “It’s going to be a big part of the game.”

Ultimately, the biggest challenge for the Ravens could be following the mantra uttered throughout the spring and summer — one week and one game at a time.

They know the Chiefs come to town next week in a Monday night game already being labeled an AFC Championship game preview, but the Hopkins-less Texans — who will have five-time Pro Bowl defensive end J.J. Watt on the other side of the ball this time — are still talented enough to give them problems, especially if the Ravens get caught “peeking ahead” as Jackson suggested they did against Tennessee last January. Watson’s also going to want some revenge as Houston tries to avoid an 0-2 start.

“They have a great quarterback — one of the best in the NFL — and he has a good supporting cast,” said outside linebacker Matthew Judon, who collected two sacks and forced a fumble in last year’s victory. “We just can’t sleep on them. We’ve got to go out there and be us, be who we are. But we cannot think that they can’t make plays because they definitely can.”

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After longest offseason, Ravens finally begin road to January redemption

Posted on 09 September 2020 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — This was always going to be the longest offseason for the Ravens after “the hard truth” of their crushing playoff loss to Tennessee last January.

Shaking off that kind of defeat is easier said than done when you were the consensus best team in the NFL with a 14-2 record, a record-setting offense, and transcendent league MVP Lamar Jackson at quarterback. The stars had seemingly aligned with good health and a 12-game winning streak to clinch the AFC’s top seed and home-field advantage through the postseason, but three months of domination vanished in three hours against the Titans, leaving the Ravens to ponder what had happened.

Second-year wide receiver and close friend Marquise Brown recalls talking with Jackson that night about what they “could have done or what should have happened” for a different outcome.

“We knew that the next thing we needed to do was focus on next year and what we could do to improve to be 1-0 each week,” Brown said. “That’s been his mindset. It’s like, we have to win each week — each week — and that goes into the playoffs. You can’t look over anybody [or] look over a game. You have to take each week seriously and win each week.”

Of course, one day and one week at a time took on a much different meaning for the Ravens and the rest of the world with the coronavirus pandemic, which closed the Owings Mills training facility for months and limited the spring workout program to Zoom meetings and remote work. Baltimore players itching to get back to work and put the end of last season behind them couldn’t begin congregating until late July, instead working out individually in various parts of the country.

With COVID-19 testing and protocols ongoing, the Ravens finally take the field Sunday to begin their 25th season in Baltimore without any fans gathered at M&T Bank Stadium, another wrinkle in this unprecedented season.

“This year is definitely so unique,” said veteran newcomer Calais Campbell, noting how long it’s felt since last playing a game after no preseason action. “All the preparation to get to this point — you’re not even sure if it’s going to happen. Here we are, and we’re just trying to lock in and find a way to get off to a fast start.”

The Ravens will have officially had eight months and two days to move on from that 28-12 loss to the Titans, knowing expectations are only greater this time around. Perhaps they should look no further than defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City for inspiration.

After falling short as the AFC’s No. 1 seed in the conference championship game a year earlier, the Chiefs found 2019 to be a bumpy road. Andy Reid’s team dealt with more health concerns, including a knee injury that sidelined 2018 league MVP Patrick Mahomes for nearly three full games. Kansas City scored 20 fewer offensive touchdowns than the year before when the offense was otherworldly. And despite facing double-digit deficits in all three postseason games, the Chiefs still found a way to win their first Super Bowl in 50 years.

History suggests Baltimore won’t match its 58 offensive touchdowns from last year, let alone break the single-season rushing record again. The Ravens probably aren’t going 14-2 again, but a deep and talented roster remains perfectly positioned to win a Super Bowl, even if Jackson doesn’t lead the league in touchdown passes or become the fifth man to win back-to-back NFL MVP awards.

Asked Wednesday about the previous two MVPs — Tom Brady in 2017 and Mahomes in 2018 — winning the Super Bowl the following year, Jackson simply replied, “Hopefully, the third one will be me.” Losses in each of his first two career playoff games provide ammunition for his lingering critics, but doubting Jackson after the dramatic improvement shown in his first full season as a starter still feels unwise.

“He’s going to continue to get better,” running back Mark Ingram said. “He’s going to continue to be more confident in his abilities within the offense — knowing the offense, knowing the ins and outs, the adjustments within the offense. He’s just continuing to grow. It’s special to be able to see it because I feel like he’s a million times ahead of where he was at this point last year.”

The reality is Jackson and the Ravens will now be judged solely by what happens in January, but there’s much work to be done over the next 17 weeks just to have that opportunity, which is why Cleveland is an appropriate Week 1 opponent. The Browns don’t offer the same revenge quotient as the Titans or Chiefs, but their Week 4 beatdown of the Ravens in Baltimore last season serves as a reminder for John Harbaugh’s team not to look ahead or take any opponent lightly.

That sentiment has been conveyed by the 34-year-old Campbell, a five-time Pro Bowl defensive end who went to a Super Bowl as a rookie with Arizona in 2008 and hasn’t been back since. He accepted a trade this offseason to play for a revamped Ravens defense because of the perceived chance to win a championship.

“The biggest thing is staying in the moment. You can’t win the Super Bowl today,” Campbell said last month. “I don’t care how good you are in August. You’ve got to go through the process. You can’t even win the first game today.”

The road to January redemption remains long with no guarantee of a regular-season ride as smooth as last year, but the Ravens are glad to finally reach that first game.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts counting down to training camp

Posted on 13 July 2020 by Luke Jones

With the tentative start date for training camp only two weeks away, I’ve offered a dozen Ravens thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Matthew Judon and the Ravens have until 4 p.m. Wednesday to strike a long-term deal and avoid the outside linebacker playing for the $16.8 million franchise tag amount. Deadlines drive negotiations, but the economic uncertainty stemming from the pandemic dims optimism. They’re not alone.

2. The dearth of lucrative extensions around the NFL this offseason didn’t stop Kansas City from signing Patrick Mahomes to the largest contract in league history. Upon seeing the news of the $450 million deal, I couldn’t help but ponder Lamar Jackson’s celebration sometime in the next 12 to 18 months.

via GIPHY

3. It still hasn’t sunk in that we’ll see fewer than 14,000 fans per game at M&T Bank Stadium if spectators are even permitted to attend at all in 2020. The thrill of going to a game — and even the annoyances — won’t be taken for granted whenever normalcy returns.

4. Coaches will bristle at the reduced or canceled slate of preseason games, but I won’t shed any tears over the disappearance of shoddy exhibitions masquerading as premium entertainment. Good organizations will evaluate young players just fine. Incompetent ones probably weren’t getting it right anyway.

5. An above-average player from the moment he stepped on the field three years ago and developing into one of three Ravens cornerbacks ever to make a Pro Bowl, Marlon Humphrey just turned 24. With another top-shelf campaign at that age, why wouldn’t he expect to become the NFL’s highest-paid corner?

6. It’s easy — and fair — to point to Greg Roman’s run-first scheme creating so many open throws, but Jackson leading the NFL in expected points added on passes into tight windows throws cold water on any lingering doubts about the reigning MVP’s passing ceiling. Just enjoy the ride.

7. That doesn’t mean Jackson and the offense are destined to be better or as good as they were in 2019. Especially in the midst of a pandemic that’s disrupted much, the variance of a 16-game schedule could rear its head more than ever. Pro Football Focus explores that nicely HERE.

8. According to PFF, the Ravens enjoyed a lead for 644 offensive snaps last year, the league’s most by a margin of 57 over second-place New England. Regression toward the mean in this area wouldn’t be surprising, but that could provide Jackson the opportunity to show growth when playing from behind.

9. Kudos to the NFL for exploring a pragmatic answer to help make playing football more feasible this fall by working with Oakley to develop face shields for helmets. The question will be how many players find them comfortable enough to buy in.

10. Less credit to the rule prohibiting players from exchanging jerseys after games, which feels much more like security theater. If we’re testing players and deeming them safe enough to play for three hours, this shouldn’t be a concern. If it is, you can probably guess what I’d say next.

11. Recency bias hurt the fan-voted “All-Time 25 Team.” Jackson over Joe Flacco was wrong but forgivable, but Steve Smith over Derrick Mason, Torrey Smith, and Qadry Ismail was bad. This wasn’t about projecting the future or recognizing the best overall player who happened to once play here. Mason deserved better.

12. Speaking of the upcoming 25th season, I’ll offer a final mention of my series on the top 25 regular-season moments in franchise history. At a time with little taking place in sports, I enjoyed this stroll down memory lane. Let’s hope we have the opportunity to witness more this fall.

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NFL reportedly expanding playoff field to 14 teams for 2020

Posted on 20 February 2020 by Luke Jones

The last-minute touchdown pass from Andy Dalton to Tyler Boyd in the 2017 regular-season finale knocked the Ravens out of the playoffs in one of the most painful moments in franchise history.

Under the NFL’s new proposed collective bargaining agreement, however, Cincinnati’s shocking fourth-and-12 score would have been of little consequence to John Harbaugh’s team that finished seventh in the AFC that season. According to multiple reports, the league is expected to expand the playoff format from 12 to 14 teams as early as the upcoming 2020 season, the first expansion of the field since the 1990 season. In other words, those 9-7 Ravens would have still gone to the playoffs.

The league is also hoping to increase the regular season from 16 to 17 games with the preseason being reduced to three contests.

Under the new playoff format, only the top team in each conference would earn a first-round bye with the other three division winners each hosting wild-card teams in the opening round of the playoffs, increasing the total number of first-round games from four to six. Such a change would intensify the battle for the coveted No. 1 seeds — which become even more valuable now — but it would also put more mediocrity in the playoffs as 15 of the 20 teams finishing seventh in their respective conferences over the last 10 seasons had fewer than 10 wins.

Was there too much of an appetite for that hypothetical first-round meeting between Devlin Hodges and Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City last month? Speaking of Pittsburgh, the new format would have meant four more playoff appearances for the Steelers over the last eight seasons, which probably wouldn’t have sat too well in these parts.

Of course, playoff expansion and a 17-game regular season — while conveniently ignoring player safety ramifications — will mean more money for both owners and players, and it’d be naive to think fans won’t continue to eat it up, making dissenting opinions like this one all but moot. It’s also fair to recognize there were only 28 teams in the NFL when the playoff field increased from 10 to 12 teams three decades ago, making a one-team increase in each conference more palatable.

But there’s always the long-term concern of any sport — even the mighty NFL — hurting its regular-season product when loosening the exclusivity of its playoff field. Sure, leagues love bigger TV deals for the playoffs, but ask the NBA and NHL — and their fans — what that’s done for interest in their 82-game regular seasons over the years when more than half of their teams make the postseason. Major League Baseball is reportedly considering expanding its playoff field again after already devaluing its uniquely long regular season over the last 25 years and having significant problems with profit-hungry owners not doing all they can to try to win.

When was the last time a team you felt was deserving was left out of the playoffs?

If the NFL increases its playoff field to 14 teams, what’s to stop the league from going to 16 in a few years to generate even more TV revenue in January and February? Can you imagine the insane money if you just let everyone in and create a 32-team NCAA-like tournament?

From the players’ perspective, that’s why postseason expansion should be accompanied by an increase in team and league-wide spending requirements. Adding more playoff teams lowers the benchmark to qualify, which gives more profit-minded owners less incentive to spend to the cap. If a team doesn’t view itself as a No. 1 seed contender, why not pocket a little more money and hope 8-8 or 9-7 still gets you a hat and T-shirt by the end of the regular season? That line of thinking just became easier.

Increasing revenue is great and an extra playoff team in each conference is hardly the end of the world, but lowering the competitive bar has potential drawbacks down the road that aren’t always apparent.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Super Bowl LIV

Posted on 03 February 2020 by Luke Jones

With Super Bowl LIV now in the books after Kansas City topped San Francisco, I’ve offered a dozen Ravens thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. After faltering as the top seed last year, the Chiefs lost their star quarterback for nearly three full games, held a 6-4 mark in November, and needed Week 17 help just to get a bye. That’s good inspiration for Baltimore, who will be hard-pressed to match its record-setting 14-2 campaign.

2. In case it weren’t obvious after the playoff loss to Tennessee, the Ravens offense’s need to be able to play off schedule more effectively was reinforced by Kansas City erasing double-digit deficits in each of its three postseason games. That’s not how you draw it up, but it’s remarkable nonetheless.

3. A year after winning NFL MVP, Patrick Mahomes became the youngest Super Bowl MVP quarterback and youngest to claim both honors. Lamar Jackson would be the youngest if he can repeat a Mahomes feat for a second straight season. These two facing off for years is going to be fun.

4. Terrell Suggs had two tackles and a quarterback hit as he won a second Super Bowl in his decorated 17-year career. In a SportsCenter interview, Suggs said he’ll take some time to ponder his future, but he’ll turn 38 in October. He’s unlikely to have a better ending than that.

5. Andy Reid could have hired a new special teams coordinator upon arriving in Philadelphia in 1999, but he chose to retain John Harbaugh, who had just completed his first year as an NFL assistant. The Ravens head coach had to feel good for his mentor finally winning that elusive ring.

6. The Baltimore defense will continue to lean on its superb secondary and plenty of blitzing, but watching the 49ers front four make Mahomes look so mortal for 3 1/2 quarters reiterated the work Eric DeCosta has to do in that department this offseason. Nick Bosa was a game-wrecker.

7. Former Ravens fullback Kyle Juszczyk scored San Francisco’s first touchdown and was one yard shy of a second in the third quarter. The 49ers paid a steep price for him in free agency three years ago, but he just finished his fourth straight Pro Bowl campaign. Not bad.

8. Steve Hutchinson being elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame was good for Marshal Yanda. The 12-year guard had seven Pro Bowls, five first-team All-Pro selections, and two second-team selections. Yanda has eight Pro Bowls, two first-team All-Pro selections, five second-team nods, and a Super Bowl ring.

9. I was surprised the vote for NFL Coach of the Year wasn’t a little closer between Harbaugh and Kyle Shanahan. Harbaugh was my choice, but the 49ers going from 4-12 a year ago to 13-3 is the kind of turnaround that often sways voters.

10. Jonathan Ogden, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Colts legends Lenny Moore and Raymond Berry being part of the on-field ceremony honoring the NFL 100 all-time team reminded how tremendous Baltimore’s football history is. Johnny Unitas, John Mackey, Jim Parker, and Gino Marchetti were also selected.

11. After watching those introductions for both the 49ers and Chiefs, I vote for The Rock to be the hype man for every major sporting event. He’s the most electrifying man in all of entertainment after all.

12. According to Caesars Sportsbook, Kansas City opens as the Super Bowl favorite (6-1) for 2020 with Baltimore right behind at 7-1. Super Bowl LV will take place in Tampa, the same city the Ravens won their first NFL championship 20 years earlier. Sounds like a good story to me.

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Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry (22) runs against the Baltimore Ravens during the first half an NFL divisional playoff football game, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following playoff loss to Tennessee

Posted on 14 January 2020 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens seeing their season come to an end in a shocking 28-12 divisional-round playoff loss to Tennessee, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Those wondering how Baltimore would handle playing from behind couldn’t have liked the answer, but perception wasn’t helped watching Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City erase a 24-point deficit like it was nothing and Russell Wilson nearly bringing Seattle back at Lambeau. Improvement there is the next step for this offense.

2. Lamar Jackson was the first to say he didn’t play very well, but drops were a big problem as you could point to as many as seven passes that should have been caught — even if some weren’t on target. Another impactful wide receiver would be ideal in Jackson’s continued development.

3. I’m not sure why Gus Edwards received so few touches with Mark Ingram not 100 percent, but the last drive of the first half (13 dropbacks) and the fourth quarter (27 dropbacks) really skewed the run-pass ratio on which many are dwelling. Still, Greg Roman seemed out of sorts.

4. Committing to run is tough when gaining 38 yards on the first 22 first-down plays. However, as Twitter user @Yoshi2052 noted, there wasn’t a designed run on first down after the 9:03 mark of the second quarter. Baltimore netted one yard or worse on 24 of 40 first-down snaps. Yuck.

5. Tennessee’s 217 rushing yards were the fourth most allowed by the Ravens in team history. A run defense ranking 21st in yards per carry allowed (a franchise-worst 4.4) and 19th in efficiency benefited from playing with big leads all season. Upgrades at inside and outside linebacker are in order.

6. It was a tough time for Pro Bowl outside linebacker Matthew Judon to have one of his worst games. His missed tackle on a Ryan Tannehill third-down scramble extended the Titans’ first touchdown drive, and he missed another on Derrick Henry’s soul-crushing 66-yard run in the third quarter.

7. Sorry, I’m not going to knock John Harbaugh for doing what he did all year on fourth-and-1 situations after the Ravens went 8-for-8 in that department during the regular season. You’re going to bust sometimes at the Blackjack table, and it just happened at the worst possible time — twice.

8. The Titans were set up on a short field for three of their four touchdowns, but the Baltimore defense offered no sudden-change impact or resistance inside the red zone. The Ravens just couldn’t make the game-changing play on either side of the ball all night.

9. Few Ravens players stood out against Tennessee in positive ways, but Marquise Brown reminded once again why his future is bright with an offseason to now get his surgically-repaired foot 100 percent. His slight stature will always be a concern, but some unique ability is there.

10. Special teams offered no favors with a Brynden Trawick hold and a silly De’Anthony Thomas foul for blocking after calling a fair catch backing Baltimore up on second-quarter drives. The latter may have been the difference in needing to settle for a field goal before halftime.

11. After dominating with a 7-1 record and an incredible plus-159 point differential on the road this season, the Ravens fell to 3-4 in all-time home playoff games. They obviously earned the top seed with a 14-2 record, but home-field advantage probably wasn’t all that critical for this particular team.

12. While some opine about rust, is it possible blowing out Pittsburgh without Jackson in Week 17 left the Ravens feeling a bit too invincible going into the bye week as the world sang how great they were? It’s all conjecture, of course. The best team doesn’t always win. 

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Jackson, Watson renew college rivalry as superstars at next level

Posted on 14 November 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Lamar Jackson and the Ravens have already played quite the slate of quarterbacks from a storyline perspective this season.

Jackson has faced off against fellow Heisman Trophy winners (Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield), the reigning league MVP (Patrick Mahomes), one of the most accomplished dual-threat quarterbacks in NFL history (Russell Wilson), and arguably the greatest quarterback of all time (Tom Brady). But Houston’s Deshaun Watson might be the closest contemporary to the one-of-a-kind Jackson in terms of skill set, making Sunday’s showdown between the AFC North-leading Ravens and the AFC South-leading Texans — currently the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in the conference respectively — that much more exciting.

These former ACC rivals met once before in one of college football’s best games in recent memory in which Watson and No. 5 Clemson edged Jackson and No. 3 Louisville in a 42-36 shootout in 2016. Watson threw for 306 yards and five touchdowns and rushed for 91 yards in that instant classic while Jackson passed for 295 yards and a touchdown and ran for 162 yards and two touchdowns.

“He was just dicing us down the field,” recalled Jackson, who lamented his Cardinals offense falling one yard shy of a first down inside the red zone on the final drive. “Our defense did great, don’t get me wrong. Our defense played a great game, but he was just doing Deshaun Watson things — scoring touchdowns, making incredible throws. They came out with the victory.”

Watson would lead Clemson to a national championship by season’s end while a 19-year-old Jackson became the youngest player to ever win the Heisman Trophy that December. And after proving wrong a list of doubters that included multiple quarterback-needy teams passing on them in their respective drafts years, Watson and Jackson meet again as MVP candidates in what Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale is calling “one of those NFL history games” in this new age of dual-threat quarterbacks.

That’s not to say Watson and Jackson are exactly the same player, of course.

The 24-year-old Watson only fell to 12th overall in the 2017 draft and threw an amazing 19 touchdowns in his first seven games before an ACL tear sustained in practice cruelly ended his rookie campaign. Jackson, 22, faced much harsher scrutiny a year later with some even suggesting he change positions and virtually every team in the league passing on him — including the Ravens — before Baltimore traded back into the first round to select him 32nd overall. While Watson was an overnight sensation whose only hiccup over his first three years has come via injury, Jackson initially had to wait his turn behind longtime starter Joe Flacco as a rookie and has shown eye-opening improvement as a passer in his second year, making his loudest doubters look very foolish.

Thanks in part to a higher volume of opportunities and an all-world wide receiver in DeAndre Hopkins, Watson maintains the edge as a passer in terms of both conventional numbers and ESPN QBR’s pure passing expected points added metric, but Jackson owns a better passing grade from Pro Football Focus through Week 10. In terms of yards per attempt, Watson’s 8.1 barely edges Jackson’s 8.0, reinforcing the gap being smaller than you’d think when looking only at completion percentage and counting numbers.

We know Jackson has no equal as a record-setting rushing quarterback in today’s game, but Watson surprisingly has a slightly better PFF run grade entering Week 11, which needn’t be taken as a contrarian viewpoint as much as a reflection of his own ability to make plays with his legs — even while lacking the same speed or penchant for running as the Ravens quarterback. Jackson leads the NFL at a whopping 6.6 yards per carry, but Watson ranks fourth at 5.4 yards per rush among those with at least 50 carries.

Watson’s impressive consistency over 32 career games and Jackson’s tremendous leap in his second season have essentially left the two on a level playing field in the present. One can make the “Coke or Pepsi” pick in terms of preferring a more polished passer with very good mobility or the lesser — but rapidly improving — thrower with transcendent rushing ability.

Either way, there’s nothing fair about it for defenses having to account for their kind of dual-threat ability that’s changing the NFL.

“Peyton Manning was extremely hard to defend. Tom Brady is hard to defend. But neither one of them could run a 4.3 [40-yard dash],” ninth-year cornerback Jimmy Smith said. “You don’t have to worry about tackling them on any given play. There’s nothing more backbreaking for a defense than to keep an offense at third-and-10 or third-and-15 and a freaking quarterback just takes it with his legs and gets a first down and extends a drive. It just hurts. These types of quarterbacks can do that now days.

“It’s just basically the whole college offense transitioning to the NFL. It’s kind of great to see actually.”

Three years after squaring off as the two best players in college football, Jackson and Watson will again be starring on the same field. This week, Jackson referred to Watson as “Brodie” — a term of endearment — while the Texans quarterback described himself as a “proud friend” watching the quarterback who edged him out for the Heisman Trophy silence his critics, speaking to their affection for one another. On Thursday, both were nominated by their teammates for the 2019 Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award, a reflection of their character and leadership ability at such young ages.

Jackson and Watson are changing the game, making you believe what they did in their first meeting at the collegiate level three years ago was only scratching the surface. Whoever comes out on top this time around could be making a loud statement in the MVP race.

“We’re just doing our thing,” Jackson said. “We’re just playing ball, having fun, doing what all of us have done since we were kids, doing something we love. That’s all.”

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 3 loss to Kansas City

Posted on 24 September 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens suffering their first loss of the season in a 33-28 final at Kansas City, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Those criticizing the unsuccessful fourth down and two-point conversions must acknowledge John Harbaugh netted the Ravens six points by scoring touchdowns in two situations many coaches would “take the points” and kick field goals. You can’t have it both ways and judge only by the end result.

2. I agree going for two when down 11 sounds counterintuitive. However, are you then trusting a defense that forced two punts all day to get two stops in regulation and likely another in overtime to win? Playing for a tie doesn’t always give you the best chance to win.

3. I’d probably take more issue with the failed fourth down on the second drive if the Ravens didn’t pin Kansas City deep to conclude their following series and allow an 83-yard touchdown three plays later. This was a game about maximizing scoring over trying to play field position.

4. Now, the play calls themselves and the execution in those situations left much to be desired. The analytics would also support not going for it if the Ravens continue to struggle to convert, but this offense is built to succeed in short yardage.

5. The Ravens couldn’t have asked for a better early return from Mark Ingram, who is on pace to rush for over 1,300 yards despite averaging less than 15 carries per game. His leadership is also valued, but that carries much more clout when a player produces at a high level.

6. Lamar Jackson came back to earth in Week 3, but there’s no reason to be discouraged by that. His timing and accuracy never quite got on track against Kansas City’s secondary, but the 22-year-old continued to compete in the second half and still made some highlight plays in the process.

7. Jackson has now gone eight straight regular-season games without an interception. His field vision doesn’t receive enough credit, but he was lucky to see that streak continue Sunday after throwing multiple passes that could have been picked.

8. Anthony Averett has had the chance to show he can handle a full-time role, but it hasn’t gone well. In addition to struggling in coverage, Averett failed to recover a gift-wrapped fumble on the opening drive and missed a tackle on Mecole Hardman that led to a big gain.

9. Gus Edwards hadn’t looked as explosive or physical over the first two games, but he quelled concerns with 53 yards on seven carries and a 45-yard run wiped out by a questionable holding call. It’s challenging for Greg Roman to get him carries with Ingram running so well.

10. Sunday served as a reminder of the need to get other receivers more involved as Mark Andrews was slowed by a foot issue and the Chiefs took away the deep stuff to Marquise Brown. Willie Snead and Seth Roberts combining for five catches and 84 yards was a silver lining.

11. Miles Boykin received much hype and played well during training camp, but his rookie campaign is off to a slow start with just two catches for 16 yards in three games. One of Jackson’s prettier passes Sunday went through Boykin’s fingers on Baltimore’s final touchdown drive.

12. The offensive line wasn’t perfect against Kansas City, but Bradley Bozeman has rarely been mentioned over the first three games. That’s good news for a left guard position that was scrutinized all spring and summer.

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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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Ravens-Chiefs: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 22 September 2019 by Luke Jones

The most anticipated meeting of Week 3 may not produce the offensive fireworks many anticipated as the undefeated Ravens go on the road to take on the 2-0 Kansas City Chiefs.

The weather could be a lingering factor as heavy rain fell throughout the night and morning in Kansas City with a light shower or thunderstorm still possible during the game. The field at Arrowhead Stadium was covered for the most significant precipitation, but it remains to be seen how the natural grass surface holds up. Temperatures will approach the mid-70s with winds 10 to 15 miles per hour.

The field conditions will make ball security more critical than usual for both Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson in this showdown of talented, young quarterbacks in the AFC.

Despite some concerns about a lingering foot injury, tight end Mark Andrews is active and will play. The 2018 third-round pick leads Baltimore in receptions and recorded back-to-back 100-yard receiving games to begin the season, a product of the great chemistry he’s developed with Jackson. Andrews’ effectiveness on a wet field will be worth monitoring as fellow second-year tight end Hayden Hurst could step into a larger role if necessary.

Fullback and defensive tackle Patrick Ricard (back) is active after being listed as questionable on the final injury report. Cornerback Jimmy Smith (knee) and safety Brynden Trawick (elbow) are inactive after being officially ruled out Friday.

Hoping to repeat last December’s effort in which Mahomes was hit 15 times in the 27-24 overtime loss, the Ravens have activated rookie third-round pick Jaylon Ferguson to give them an additional pass-rushing option. Ferguson was a healthy scratch for each of the first two games, but defensive coordinator Wink Martindale has remained complimentary of his progress since the start of training camp.

Kansas City will be without Pro Bowl wide receiver Tyreek Hill (shoulder) and starting left tackle Eric Fisher (groin) against the Ravens, but veteran running back LeSean McCoy (ankle) is active for Sunday’s game. Claimed off waivers by the Chiefs earlier this week, former Ravens offensive tackle Greg Senat is inactive.

The referee for Sunday’s game is John Hussey.

The Ravens are wearing white jerseys with black pants while the Chiefs don red jerseys with white pants for their home opener.

Sunday marks the ninth all-time regular-season meeting between these teams with Kansas City holding the 5-3 advantage. However, Baltimore is 3-1 in four trips to Arrowhead, which includes a 2010 wild-card playoff win.

Below are Sunday’s inactives:

BALTIMORE
QB Trace McSorley
WR Jaleel Scott
CB Jimmy Smith
S Brynden Trawick
ILB Otaro Alaka
G Ben Powers
DT Daylon Mack

KANSAS CITY
WR Tyreek Hill
RB Damien Williams
OT Greg Senat
OT Eric Fisher
C Nick Allegretti
OT Martinas Rankin
DL Khalen Saunders

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