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

Posted on 10 October 2019 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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lamarsteelers

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New chapter upon us in old Ravens-Steelers rivalry

Posted on 04 October 2019 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Loss in Kansas City reflects growing pains for revamped Ravens defense

Posted on 23 September 2019 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are issues to correct, however.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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marquisebrown

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 2 win over Arizona

Posted on 17 September 2019 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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mcsorley

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Sizing up 2019 Ravens roster after two preseason games

Posted on 18 August 2019 by Luke Jones

With two preseason games in the books, it’s time to to ponder the Ravens’ 53-man roster for the first time since the end of mandatory minicamp in mid-June.

My current assessment suggests as many as 48 players would be considered safely on the roster if the deadline were to come now. This number is higher than in recent years and reflects the depth at certain positions and overall talent level on the roster.

Of the 90 players currently on the roster — fullback Christopher Ezeala carries an international player roster exemption — I list 15 on the bubble. Not all bubble players are on equal footing, of course, with some position groups lacking quality depth and others enjoying an abundance of talent and likely falling victim to the numbers game. It’s also important to consider any player’s contract status as the organization is more likely to retain a player with multiple years of control remaining compared to one similar in talent nearing the end of his contract.

Though general manager Eric DeCosta, head coach John Harbaugh, and the rest of the coaching staff and front office are cognizant of the numbers at each position, arbitrarily trying to pinpoint a specific number of inside linebackers or wide receivers isn’t the most accurate way of projecting a roster. The Ravens are always looking for reserves who will excel on special teams, so coaches will look carefully at players’ other attributes in addition to what they bring to their specific positions when filling out the back of the roster.

Bubble players who are underlined are the ones projected to make the cut for the projected 53-man roster as of Aug. 18.

QUARTERBACKS (3)
IN: Lamar Jackson, Robert Griffin III
BUBBLE: Trace McSorley
LONG SHOT: Joe Callahan
Skinny: McSorley’s summer play has been predictably inconsistent, but the Ravens would prefer not to lose the sixth-round pick after the strides he’s made since spring. The health of Griffin’s thumb will play a big part in determining whether DeCosta attempts to sneak McSorley through waivers and to the practice squad.

RUNNING BACKS & FULLBACKS (4)
IN: Mark Ingram, Gus Edwards, Justice Hill, Patrick Ricard
BUBBLE: Kenneth Dixon, De’Lance Turner, Tyler Ervin
LONG SHOT: Christopher Ezeala
Skinny: Dixon received early action Thursday, but the absence of any special-teams contributions make it difficult to put him on the roster, especially with his injury history and Dixon being in the last year of his contract. Special teams give Turner and Ervin a better chance, but both are a little too far down the depth chart.

WIDE RECEIVERS (5)
IN: Willie Snead, Marquise Brown, Miles Boykin, Chris Moore
BUBBLE: Jaleel Scott, Seth Roberts, Antoine Wesley
LONG SHOT: Michael Floyd, Sean Modster, Jaylen Smith, Joe Horn Jr.
Skinny: Roberts appeared safely on the roster 10 days ago, but Moore has looked good in the preseason and has practiced well behind Snead in the slot, leaving the injured Roberts vulnerable. Scott must contribute on special teams, but the Ravens may now value his upside over Roberts’ higher floor.

TIGHT ENDS (3)
IN: Nick Boyle, Mark Andrews, Hayden Hurst
BUBBLE: none
LONG SHOT: Charles Scarff, Cole Herdman
Skinny: With the way offensive coordinator Greg Roman values tight ends, Scarff and Herdman could both be viable candidates for the practice squad. Ricard’s positional flexibility gives Baltimore a fourth option as a blocking tight end behind the top three on the depth chart.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (8)
IN: Marshal Yanda, Ronnie Stanley, Orlando Brown Jr., Matt Skura, Ben Powers, James Hurst, Jermaine Eluemunor
BUBBLE: Bradley Bozeman, Patrick Mekari
LONG SHOT: Greg Senat, Randin Crecelius, R.J. Prince, Marcus Applefield, Darrell Williams, Patrick Vahe, Isaiah Williams
Skinny: Eluemunor’s strong showing against the Packers probably removed any doubts about his roster status since he might be the best backup left tackle on the roster. Meanwhile, Mekari didn’t stand out after his strong week of practice, and Senat’s current absence has really hurt his roster chances.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (6)
IN: Brandon Williams, Michael Pierce, Willie Henry, Chris Wormley, Daylon Mack
BUBBLE: Zach Sieler, Gerald Willis
LONG SHOT: none
Skinny: Ricard needs be included in the overview of this group as he’s playing like someone who could see some snaps in the game-day rotation. Sieler has had an underwhelming summer, but he’s the only true 5-technique end behind Wormley on roster and Willis hasn’t stood out in practices or games.

INSIDE LINEBACKERS (3)
IN: Patrick Onwuasor, Chris Board, Kenny Young
BUBBLE: Otaro Alaka
LONG SHOT: Donald Payne, Nicholas Grigsby, Alvin Jones, E.J. Ejiya, Silas Stewart
Skinny: Alaka may have the best chance among the rookie free agents to crack the 53-man roster, but the frequency with which the Ravens use the dime package makes keeping a fourth inside linebacker less critical. Board’s recovery from a concussion could alter the thinking on Alaka, however.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS (5)
IN: Matthew Judon, Pernell McPhee, Jaylon Ferguson, Tyus Bowser, Tim Williams
BUBBLE: Shane Ray
LONG SHOT: Aaron Adeoye
Skinny: The group behind Judon and McPhee — whose durability is a question — remains concerning, but Ray hasn’t impressed considering his experience level relative to Ferguson, Williams, and Bowser and the competition he’s faced in preseason games. A post-summer acquisition here still feels possible.

CORNERBACKS (8)
IN: Marlon Humphrey, Jimmy Smith, Brandon Carr, Anthony Averett, Iman Marshall, Justin Bethel, Cyrus Jones
BUBBLE: Maurice Canady
LONG SHOT: Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Terrell Bonds
INJURED RESERVE: Tavon Young
Skinny: The serious neck injury to Young takes Jones off the bubble and pushes Canady on the right side of the bubble since he can play outside and at the nickel. Sidelined since last weekend, the rookie Marshall could also end up on IR, which would open an extra spot at another position of need.

SAFETIES (5)
IN: Earl Thomas, Tony Jefferson, Chuck Clark, Anthony Levine, DeShon Elliott
BUBBLE: Brynden Trawick
LONG SHOT: Bennett Jackson
Skinny: Trawick’s special-teams ability shouldn’t be overlooked, but he’s too far down the depth chart at the safety position and there are already too many cornerbacks to try to add another defensive back to the mix. Jackson has done everything he possibly can to earn a real opportunity elsewhere.

SPECIALISTS (3)
IN: Justin Tucker, Sam Koch, Morgan Cox
BUBBLE: none
LONG SHOT: Matthew Orzech, Cameron Nizialek
Skinny: The only question here is whether special teams coaches Chris Horton and Randy Brown will miraculously transform Nizialek or any other kicker potentially added in the final two weeks of the preseason into another late-round pick in a trade. No one develops specialists better than the Ravens.

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kennyyoung

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Ravens hoping to begin gaining clarity with position battles next week

Posted on 03 August 2019 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Twelve Ravens thoughts after first five camp practices

Posted on 30 July 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens enjoying their first day off from training camp and still more than a week away from the preseason opener, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. I wrote about Lamar Jackson the other day, but one topic I didn’t address was ball security after he led the NFL in fumbles last season. Correcting that is critical, but his fumbling problems really only showed up in games, making it difficult to gauge progress there thus far.

2. Brandon Carr played some nickel filling in for Tavon Young at times last year, but he’s received plenty of reps at safety in camp. The 33-year-old admits his “head spins sometimes” playing multiple positions, but that versatility will be valuable to this secondary and for him extending his career.

3. There’s been no shortage of praise for Miles Boykin, who’s made plays against the starting defense and was even compared to a young Michael Thomas by Willie Snead. He’s looked good, but pumping the brakes on the hype until the first couple preseason games would be wise. It’s still early.

4. I remain more bullish on Mark Andrews, who has been the best pass catcher on the field and is playing with some attitude and swagger. Given the structure of this offense and Jackson’s passing strength being over the middle, Andrews could really take off after a promising rookie year.

5. Wink Martindale praised Pernell McPhee for his early play and bringing “that old Raven rough, tough mentality” to the outside linebackers, but this position remains a concern. Tim Williams has flashed a little — he’s done that in previous summers — but the rest of the group has been quiet.

6. After starting the final 10 games last season and serving as the starting right tackle all spring, Orlando Brown Jr. has worked with the second team since missing the first full-squad workout with a failed conditioning test. I understand sending a message, but four practices seems sufficient.

7. Jermaine Eluemunor missed the first practice after failing the conditioning test, which came after John Harbaugh wanted him to be in better shape in the spring. Perceived as a quiet favorite to play left guard, Eluemunor has also missed two practices with a muscle issue. He’s squandering early opportunities.

8. We expected a competition between Chris Board and Kenny Young at inside linebacker, but Board has taken virtually all first-team reps next to Patrick Onwuasor in the base and nickel packages. Young isn’t practicing poorly, but he’s clearly third behind Board and Anthony Levine when considering Baltimore’s frequent dime usage.

9. Two early concerns continue to be frequent pre-snap penalties and bad snaps from the centers. The precision required to run such a unique offense can’t be overstated — even in July. As Greg Roman described the many false starts, “It’s hard to turn that lemon into lemonade when you jump.”

10. With the Ravens enjoying the deepest secondary in the NFL, it’s easy to forget about guys further down the depth chart, but Chuck Clark and Maurice Canady have practiced well. DeShon Elliott received much hype for his spring play, but Clark has been steadier early in camp.

11. Seth Roberts has quietly had a solid start to camp, showing some chemistry with Jackson on shorter passes. He’s not spectacular and had a history of drops in Oakland, but he’d go into my top three wide receivers with Willie Snead and Boykin instead of Chris Moore so far.

12. The Robert Griffin III injury isn’t ideal, but Trace McSorley should continue receiving more reps behind Jackson, especially with Josh Johnson declining an offer and journeyman Joe Callahan signing instead. McSorley has a huge opportunity to prove he’s deserving of a 53-man roster spot. He’s held up OK so far.

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With Griffin sidelined, Ravens sign quarterback Joe Callahan

Posted on 29 July 2019 by Luke Jones

With Robert Griffin III expected to miss the preseason with a thumb injury, the Ravens have added another healthy quarterback to their 90-man roster with the signing of journeyman Joe Callahan.

According to NFL Network, Baltimore had offered veteran quarterback Josh Johnson a contract, but the 33-year-old declined with the Ravens optimistic that Griffin will be ready for the regular-season opener on Sept. 8. Johnson spent the 2016 preseason with the Ravens and starter three games for Washington last season.

Coached by Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman at Holy Spirit High School in Absecon, N.J. in 2008, Callahan, 26, has attempted only seven NFL passes and has spent time with five other teams in his career. His lone regular-season game came with Green Bay in 2017 when he went 5-for-7 for 11 yards, but the Ravens needed a healthy quarterback to share practice reps and preseason snaps with starter Lamar Jackson and rookie sixth-round pick Trace McSorley.

The 2016 undrafted free agent from Division III Wesley has also spent time with New Orleans, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Tampa Bay.

The Ravens waived outside linebacker Markus Jones to make room for Callahan on the 90-man roster.

Practicing for a fifth straight day before Tuesday’s respite, the Ravens were again without slot cornerback Tavon Young and offensive lineman Jermaine Eluemunor, who both appeared to be laboring during Saturday’s stadium practice and have missed back-to-back workouts.

“They’re just minor. It’s muscle issues that they have to get right,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “I kind of expect them both back after the day off, but we’ll see.”

Safety Earl Thomas and outside linebacker Pernell McPhee appeared to receive a veteran day while offensive lineman Randin Crecelius missed his second straight practice Monday. Wide receiver Marquise Brown (foot) remains on the non-football injury list, and guard Alex Lewis (shoulder) is still on the physically unable to perform list.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts at start of training camp

Posted on 25 July 2019 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2019 Ravens training camp preview: Outside linebackers

Posted on 23 July 2019 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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