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Ravens play it safe with Jackson, sitting him against Philadelphia

Posted on 22 August 2019 by Luke Jones

PHILADELPHIA — With their offensive line banged up and two days of productive joint practices under their belts, the Ravens chose to play it safe with Lamar Jackson in the third preseason game.

The second-year quarterback wasn’t playing against Philadelphia Thursday night, meaning the next time we’ll see Jackson will be in the season opener at Miami on Sept. 8. Head coach John Harbaugh previously indicated Jackson would play a similar number of snaps to what he saw in the first two preseason games — 16 against Jacksonville and 22 against Green Bay — before left tackle Ronnie Stanley (left ankle) and left guard Jermaine Eluemunor (undisclosed) were injured during Monday’s practice with the Eagles, circumstances that likely made the coaching staff reassess its plans for an exhibition game. The Ravens are already holding out seven-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda (foot) until the season opener, meaning three-fifths of the projected starting offensive line wasn’t playing Thursday.

Jackson finishes his preseason completing 10 of 16 passes for 117 yards and a touchdown pass and rushing two times for 14 yards.

The Ravens took a similar approach last summer by sitting out former starting quarterback Joe Flacco for the penultimate preseason game when three starters on the offensive line weren’t playing and the team had also completed two sets of joint practices. The third preseason game was long considered the “dress rehearsal” for the regular season, but Baltimore has now rested multiple starters in each of the last two summers.

Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz was also sitting out Thursday’s game and has yet to play in the preseason.

Below are the players who weren’t suited up for pre-game warmups:

QB Lamar Jackson
QB Robert Griffin III
WR Seth Roberts
WR Willie Snead
RB Mark Ingram
RB Kenneth Dixon
RB Gus Edwards
G Marshal Yanda
OT Ronnie Stanley
G Jermaine Eluemunor
OT Greg Senat
OL Randin Crecelius
DT Brandon Williams
CB Tavon Young
CB Iman Marshall
OLB Jaylon Ferguson
ILB Chris Board
DT Gerald Willis

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Ravens-Eagles preseason primer: Five players to watch

Posted on 21 August 2019 by Luke Jones

Long viewed as the dress rehearsal for the regular season, the third preseason game between the Ravens and the Philadelphia Eagles isn’t expected to resemble that.

Head coach John Harbaugh confirmed most starters will play around 20 snaps for the third straight week, but that plan for quarterback Lamar Jackson may need to be revisted with three members of the projected starting offensive line dealing with health concerns. Meanwhile, it remains unclear if Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz will play Thursday after being held out of his team’s first two preseason contests by head coach Doug Pederson.

Starters seeing less and less playing time has brought the preseason schedule under greater scrutiny with many calling for a reduction in exhibition games. The Ravens have conducted two sets of joint workouts in each of the last two summers, a practice becoming more popular among NFL teams since it provides competition in a more controlled environment to curtail injuries.

“I just felt like we got a lot of work done,” said Harbaugh about the practices in Philadelphia and the possibility of eliminating some preseason contests. “I wouldn’t be opposed to that at all. I’m on record [saying] I don’t know how many of these preseason games we really need to play, but I also understand there’s a lot to the bargaining process. We’ll see what happens.”

Of course, this game remains very meaningful for players fighting for spots on the 53-man roster with final cuts only 10 days away. The preseason finale is often touted as the forum for bubble players to win jobs, but the reality is most roster decisions have already been made by that point and only a spot or two at most remains up for grabs.

Thursday represents the last best chance for many of these roster hopefuls.

“It’s going to be a measuring stick definitely,” defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said. “It’s one of those things that we talk about. This third preseason game, it’s getting down to crunch time now where guys are going to make the 53 or they’re not.

“The biggest message was, ‘If you think you’re on the bubble, you are.‘”

Thursday marks the 13th time the Ravens and Philadelphia will meet in the preseason with Baltimore holding a 7-5 edge. The all-time regular-season series is tied at 2-2-1.

The Ravens own a 35-12 record in preseason games under Harbaugh and have won a remarkable 15 in a row, a streak going back to the beginning of the 2016 preseason.

Unofficial (and largely speculative) injury report

The Ravens are not required to release an injury report like they do in the regular season, but I’ve offered my best guess on what one would look like if it were to be released ahead of Thursday’s game.

Most of the players ruled to be out will come as no surprise, but the status of several will remain in question. Of course, this list does not include any veteran starters who could be held out due to the coaching staff’s preference.

Again, this is not an official injury report released by the Ravens:

OUT: G Marshal Yanda (foot/ankle), CB Tavon Young (neck), QB Robert Griffin III (thumb), WR Seth Roberts, CB Iman Marshall (thigh), OT Greg Senat, OL Randin Crecelius
DOUBTFUL: LB Chris Board (concussion)
QUESTIONABLE: LB Otaro Alaka, OT Ronnie Stanley (ankle), WR Marquise Brown (foot), G Jermaine Eluemunor, RB Kenneth Dixon, RB Gus Edwards, LB Shane Ray, LB Nicholas Grigsby, DT Gerald Willis

Five players to watch Thursday night

TE Hayden Hurst

The 2018 first-round pick is healthy and has had his share of good days during training camp, but he’s recorded only one catch for minus-1 yard over the first two preseason games. Building confidence and consistency are keys for Hurst entering his second season, so you’d like to see him finish the preseason on a high note. With first-round rookie wide receiver Marquise Brown still not at full strength, Jackson and the passing game may need to lean even more heavily on the tight ends early in the season, making it important for Hurst to at least emerge as a productive complementary option to Mark Andrews.

LB Shane Ray

The Ravens have waited all summer for Ray to emerge, but it hasn’t happened to this point as he didn’t really stand out even playing against second- and third-team offensive linemen in the first two preseason games, which isn’t an encouraging sign for someone in his fifth season. The former first-round pick of the Denver Broncos missed practice time earlier this week, but he did return for Tuesday’s session, leading you to believe he should be able to play Thursday. The gap is hardly insurmountable, but Ray appears to be sixth in the pecking order at outside linebacker, which may not add up to a roster spot.

OL Bradley Bozeman

Despite not being strongly considered for the starting left guard job in camp, Bozeman has seemingly solidified his roster standing with solid play as the backup center in the preseason as well as an ability to fill in at either guard spot. The health status of the starting offensive line could press Bozeman into starting duty against the Eagles, which could provide him the chance to make a late pitch to be the left guard. The 2018 sixth-round pick from Alabama never did push Matt Skura for the starting center position as many anticipated this offseason, but he still looks the part of a versatile reserve.

CB Maurice Canady

The oft-injured defensive back entering the final year of his rookie deal looked to be the odd man out in a very deep group of cornerbacks, but the neck injury to Tavon Young has shortened a path to a roster spot for Canady, who has played well on the outside this summer. He served as Baltimore’s nickel back in the second half of the 2017 season, so it will be interesting to see if he receives more opportunities to compete in the slot against the likes of Cyrus Jones, Brandon Carr, and Anthony Averett. Canady’s injury history and contract status still make him vulnerable on cut-down day, but his chances have improved.

RB De’Lance Turner

Despite rushing for 58 yards on 11 carries in the first two preseason games, Turner looks to be no higher than fifth on the running back depth chart, which would suggest he’s really not even on the bubble. However, the burst he’s shown as a rusher coupled with his appearance on starting special-teams units would lead you to believe he’s vying for a job, especially since Kenneth Dixon is in the final year of his contract, has a long injury history, and doesn’t play special teams. No one suggests Turner is better than Dixon, but those variables work in the former’s favor if Baltimore wants to keep a fourth back behind Mark Ingram, Gus Edwards, and Justice Hill.

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Ravens seeing “different gear” from Marquise Brown in recent practices

Posted on 18 August 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — One of the biggest story lines for the Ravens’ trip to Philadelphia to practice against the Eagles ahead of the third preseason game will be the status of wide receiver Marquise Brown.

Head coach John Harbaugh said the 2019 first-round pick practiced fully Saturday and would “hopefully … be good” to practice fully against the Eagles this week, which could pave the way for his preseason debut Thursday in what’s expected to be the final exhibition action for quarterback Lamar Jackson and most other starters. The health of Brown’s surgically-repaired left foot remains paramount, of course, but the speedy rookie building an on-field rapport with his starting quarterback is becoming a greater priority with the season opener in Miami just three weeks away.

Brown began taking part in full-team drills Aug. 10 after being brought along very slowly over the first 2 1/2 weeks of training camp.

“We’re giving him more every day. I think the plan was the right plan,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “This past week, we really saw a different gear from him, and that’s exciting. Now, we have to build some chemistry with him and Lamar.

“His style is a little different. He can kick that gear in. You better put some mustard on that ball.

Slot cornerback Tavon Young continues to weigh his options for a disc issue in his neck that could keep him out for the entire season, but defensive coordinator Wink Martindale has no shortage of potential replacements at the nickel position, even if they don’t provide the same upside or versatility. Cyrus Jones has started at the position in each of the first two preseason games to mixed reviews, but it appears unlikely he’ll hold the job exclusively at this point.

Every game situation could bring a different defensive player to the slot, which is the benefit of having depth in the secondary.

“Cyrus is the No. 1 nickel right now, but we’ll just wait and see what happens when we game-plan it,” Martindale said. “Brandon Carr has been in there. ‘Double A’ (Anthony Averett) has been in there. We can put different guys in there, and it’s matchup — what we think is the best. We put Chuck [Clark] and DeShon [Elliott] in there. It’s just a matchup thing.”

In addition to Young, 13 other players were absent from Sunday’s practice with cornerback Marlon Humphrey, wide receiver Miles Boykin, and outside linebackers Pernell McPhee and Shane Ray being new absences. Others continuing to be sidelined included running backs Gus Edwards and Kenneth Dixon (knee), wide receiver Seth Roberts, offensive lineman Marshal Yanda (foot), Randin Crecelilus, and Greg Senat, cornerback Iman Marshall (thigh), and inside linebackers Chris Board (concussion) and Nicholas Grigsby.

Inside linebackers Patrick Onwuasor and Kenny Young returned to practice after sitting out Saturday’s session.

The Ravens traveled to Philadelphia Sunday evening ahead of joint practices Monday and Tuesday. The Eagles’ 4-3 base defense and widely-aligned edge rushers should provide a valuable test for Jackson and a young offense this week.

“They get out there in those wide nines, and they’re coming off the edge. They bring it. They’re a real penetrating, run-to-the-ball defense,” Roman said. “It’s just a different style, and to be able to practice against those different nuances that you’re going to see throughout the season [is beneficial].

“It’s a great advantage for the guys to [have played against] more of a 3-4 structure [against Green Bay] last week, more of an eight-man front, 4-3 [against Jacksonville] the week before, and now they get to play against that 4-3 stack with those wide nines.”

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elias

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Twelve Orioles thoughts on quiet trade deadline

Posted on 01 August 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles making only a minor-league trade before Wednesday’s 4 p.m. trade deadline, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. I had no problem with Mike Elias standing pat after the Andrew Cashner deal. He had little urgency to force any trades with a roster lacking any pending free agents aside from Mark Trumbo. These guys can be dealt this winter with minimal consequence to their value in a vacuum.

2. Teams are valuing young prospects more and more and simply aren’t giving up anything real for middle-of-the-road talent, even those with years of control remaining. The truth is the Orioles just didn’t have much to give up that really moves the meter for a contender.

3. Last year’s return of mostly minor-league filler reminded that making trades for the sake of doing it — the Kevin Gausman and Jonathan Schoop deals come to mind — isn’t wise. As Elias said, a trade offers “a quick high,” but it’s wrong if you don’t believe in the names you’re getting.

4. Trey Mancini is a good player with three more years of control, but think back to the many productive first base or designated hitter types the Orioles have acquired cheaply over the last eight or nine years. Right now, I believe he has more value in Baltimore than anywhere else.

5. However, I don’t understand the persistent chatter about a Mancini extension considering he’ll hit free agency before his age 31 season. I literally typed this thought as Chris Davis struck out to lower his average to .187. Let’s see where Mancini and the club are in another year or two.

6. Some pointed to the many available relievers to explain Mychal Givens remaining, but teams looking for help are focused on the present before the future. Two more years of control is nice, but Givens owns a 4.54 ERA and has allowed 10 homers. Not attractive for a pennant race.

7. Jonathan Villar not being traded was mildly surprising since he has only one more year of control, but he’s the kind of player likely lost in the wash with the elimination of the August waiver deadline. A good finish probably keeps his offseason value similar to where it was Wednesday.

8. Hanser Alberto has been one of the better stories of 2019 and is fun to watch, but did anyone really expect a team to trade anything of interest for a guy who’s had a few nice months on the heels of being waived four times this past winter? Come on.

9. Even if only giving up cash, Philadelphia must have really liked Dan Straily’s 2.38 ERA in six Norfolk starts to even consider acquiring him. He’s still tied for 12th in the AL in homers allowed despite last pitching for the Orioles on June 18.

10. In dealing All-Star closer Shane Greene and outfielder Nick Castellanos, Detroit probably became the favorite to secure the 2020 first overall pick. If you want to be upset about the Orioles not making any trades, that’s probably the appropriate lens through which to look.

11. The lack of trades didn’t fuel any outrage about the Orioles “tanking.” They’re clearly not doing everything possible to win at the major league level after a 115-loss season in which they were actually trying, but Elias could have made trades solely to dump salary and make the club worse.

12. Elias just watched his old boss, Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow, complete a deadline trade for a former Cy Young Award winner and legitimate ace for the second time in three years. It sure will be fun if he’s in that position with the Orioles in four or five years.

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Elias, Orioles quiet as trade deadline passes

Posted on 31 July 2019 by Luke Jones

The trade deadline passed Wednesday with Orioles general manager Mike Elias standing pat with his major league roster.

Despite plenty of speculation since veteran starting pitcher Andrew Cashner was traded to Boston for two 17-year-old prospects on July 13, Elias elected not to deal the likes of second baseman Jonathan Villar, relief pitcher Mychal Givens, starting pitcher Dylan Bundy, and slugger Trey Mancini, who all remain under club control beyond the 2019 season. With Cashner being Baltimore’s only real trade chip hitting free agency this fall, Elias felt little urgency to make a deal if he didn’t believe the return was improving the overall talent level in the organization.

Villar is under club control through next season while Givens and Bundy aren’t scheduled to become free agents until after 2020, but none are having standout seasons, meaning Elias wasn’t negotiating from a position of great leverage and can always revisit trade talks this offseason.

There was reported interest in Mancini, but the right fielder and first baseman doesn’t become a free agent until after the 2022 season and is the rebuilding Orioles’ most recognizable player, which likely made the asking price too steep for possible suitors. Mancini’s defensive limitations also dent his overall value as he’s been worth just 2.1 wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs. In other words, the 27-year-old is probably more valuable to the Orioles at this point than to a contending club that’s likely reluctant to part with top prospects for a player ideally suited for first base or the designated hitter spot.

The Orioles did complete a minor-league trade before the 4 p.m. deadline, sending right-handed pitcher Dan Straily to Philadelphia for cash considerations. Straily, 30, was designated for assignment on June 20 after pitching to an awful 9.82 ERA with 22 home runs allowed in 47 2/3 innings and had accepted a minor-league assignment to Triple-A Norfolk where he’d posted a 2.38 ERA in six starts.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts in middle of “dead” season

Posted on 29 June 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens and the rest of the NFL in the midst of their “dead” season, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The unknown is what makes 2019 so intriguing with training camp weeks away. The many veteran departures do leave Baltimore with a lower floor, but the emphasis on youth potentially creates a higher ceiling. There’s no sense in being too sentimental after one playoff victory in the last six seasons.

2. With more analyst hires and a priority on pass coverage over pressure, the Ravens continue embracing analytics, which makes their run-first offense even more fascinating with “smart” football all about the pass today. It may not prove revolutionary or even successful, but I respect trying to find a hidden edge.

3. Even during this time away from the team facility, players put in a tremendous amount of work just to maintain their strength and fitness. That’s why I don’t envy Michael Pierce these next several weeks, but any “catching up” he does will be critical for his free-agent value come March.

4. I’m reminded of Steve Bisciotti’s candid comments this spring that he had “no idea” what to expect from Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin, who both missed extensive spring reps. I can’t buy the passing game being good enough without meaningful contributions from at least one rookie.

5. We’ve discussed the left guard position extensively and will continue to during training camp, but Ben Powers seizing the job instead of there being a battle of attrition would do wonders for the long-term upside of the offensive line. You can’t expect that from a fourth-round rookie, however.

6. I’ve mentioned this before, but always take note of contract status, financial guarantees, and draft standing when sizing up the 53-man roster. Even if the performance isn’t completely equal, teams often prefer someone with more years remaining on his rookie deal — and upside — than a guy soon hitting the market.

7. It was good to see former Ravens scout Chad Alexander receive the opportunity to become Joe Douglas’ director of player personnel in New York. With former Ravens executive Phil Savage also on staff, the Jets could have a good thing if — and it’s a colossal if — ownership doesn’t ruin it.

8. I expect comparisons to continue, but it’d be refreshing to see both Lamar Jackson and Joe Flacco succeed in their respective situations to put the debate to rest. It’s fine to root for the latter, but not as ammunition against a 22-year-old in his first full year as a starter.

9. I’m already dreading subjective pass interference reviews bringing any flow of an enjoyable game to a halt. I’d like egregious calls to be corrected as much as anyone, but I can’t help but feel watching the same replay over and over and over is quietly becoming our new favorite pastime.

10. Just 12 players on the current roster were born in the 1980s and the last two first-round picks — Jackson and Brown — weren’t yet born when the Ravens played their first game at old Memorial Stadium. Either the Ravens are really young or I’m just getting old.

11. John Harbaugh is entering his 12th season, which will tie the combined tenures of Brian Billick and the late Ted Marchibroda. Not too bad for a special teams coach known as the older brother of former Ravens quarterback Jim Harbaugh when he was hired.

12. The decision to stop holding training camp in Westminster was unpopular, but the Ravens deserve credit for going to great lengths to accommodate up to nearly 2,000 fans per practice at their Owings Mills facility while other teams continue scaling back access to practices and charging money.

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Ravens announce open practice dates for 2019 training camp

Posted on 17 June 2019 by Luke Jones

The Ravens will open their 2019 training camp with a full-squad practice on July 25 and will hold a total of 15 practices open to fans.

That number includes a free and open workout at M&T Bank Stadium on Saturday, July 27, an evening that includes autograph signings for kids and a fireworks and laser show at the conclusion of practice. This marks the ninth straight year the Ravens have scheduled an open workout at the stadium after last year’s was canceled due to inclement weather.

Fourteen practices at the Ravens’ training facility in Owings Mills will be free and open with first-come, first-serve reservations for parking passes available beginning July 11 on the team’s official website. The facility has the ability to host nearly 2,000 fans per day, according to the Ravens.

“Training camp provides Ravens fans an opportunity to connect up-close with our team in a unique environment,” vice president of marketing Brad Downs said in a press release. “We take a great deal of pride in hosting fans each summer because their enthusiasm creates an outstanding atmosphere that our players enjoy.”

Another highlight of those open dates will be Aug. 5 and 6 when the Jacksonville Jaguars will practice with the Ravens ahead of the Aug. 8 preseason opener in Baltimore. John Harbaugh’s team will also practice in Philadelphia with the Eagles ahead of the third preseason game taking place Aug. 22. Last summer, the Ravens hosted the Los Angeles Rams for joint practices and then traveled to Indianapolis to work out with the Colts.

The final open practice for fans in Owings Mills will be Aug. 13.

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Ravens announce 2019 preseason slate of games

Posted on 09 April 2019 by Luke Jones

After racking up plenty of travel miles during last year’s preseason, the Ravens will enjoy staying closer to home this summer.

John Harbaugh’s team will open its 24th preseason in Baltimore with back-to-back home games against Jacksonville (Aug. 8) and Green Bay (Aug. 15) before not even needing to get on a plane for exhibition road tilts against Philadelphia and Washington. It’s quite a contrast from a 2018 preseason that included longer trips to Canton, Ohio for the Hall of Fame Game, Indianapolis, and Miami. Each of the four preseason games will be played on Thursday nights with kickoff times still to be determined.

The Ravens also confirmed they will conduct joined practices with the Jaguars in Owings Mills and the Eagles in Philadelphia before their respective preseason meetings. Harbaugh indicated at the league meetings in Phoenix last month that these joint sessions were likely to take place after the Ravens conducted workouts with the Los Angeles Rams and the Colts last summer. The Ravens practiced with San Francisco in 2014 and the Eagles in 2015 before taking a two-year hiatus from working out with other teams.

“I just think it gives you a chance to see some different schemes as much as anything and some different players,” Harbaugh said. “You have an opportunity for your guys to go against guys that they haven’t gone [against] in training camp. The thing I think we’re starting to learn over the years is how to practice against other teams — what the style is, what the tempos are, how to organize the practices to get the most out of them.

“Last year went really well both with the Rams and Colts. Sean [McVay] was great; Frank [Reich] was great. I think if the two coaches are aligned with what you’re trying to get out of it, it seems like it’s been really good for us. Hopefully, we can make it work again.”

This summer will mark the first time the Ravens have played the Packers in the preseason since 1996 at Memorial Stadium. Baltimore will take on the Redskins in the preseason for the third consecutive year.

Ravens season-ticket holders already disenchanted about the cost and quality of preseason games will be pleased to see the particularly-forgettable exhibition finale taking place on the road for the 10th time in the last 11 years.

The Ravens are 60-32 in their preseason history — including a 13-0 record over the last three years — and own a 33-12 preseason mark under Harbaugh.

2019 Ravens preseason schedule
Week 1: Thursday, Aug. 8 – vs. Jacksonville
Week 2: Thursday, Aug. 15 – vs. Green Bay
Week 3: Thursday, Aug. 22 – at Philadelphia
Week 4: Thursday, Aug. 29 – at Washington

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Former Ravens defensive tackle Ngata announces retirement

Posted on 18 March 2019 by Luke Jones

A week after free-agent departure Terrell Suggs said farewell to Baltimore after 16 years, another former Ravens defensive great is calling it a career.

Five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata announced his retirement via Instagram by posting a video of himself standing at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. The 35-year-old spent nine of his 13 NFL seasons with Baltimore and was a member of the Super Bowl XLVII champions. After being traded to Detroit in 2014, Ngata played three years with the Lions and spent last season with Philadelphia, appearing in 13 games and making nine starts.

Selected with the 12th overall pick of the 2006 draft from the University of Oregon, the 6-foot-4, 340-pound defensive tackle has a strong claim as the fourth-best defensive player in Ravens history behind Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed and Suggs, who is also likely to wind up in Canton. Ngata not only served as the immovable anchor of strong run defenses for nearly a decade, but his 25 1/2 sacks with the Ravens reflected his ability to pressure the quarterback, a trait that distinguished him from other notable defensive tackles in team history.

Only five Ravens — Lewis, Jonathan Ogden, Reed, Suggs, and Marshal Yanda — were named to more career Pro Bowls as Ngata was invited every year from 2009-13. He signed a five-year, $61 million contract in 2011 that made him one of the highest-paid athletes in the world over a 12-month period.

In addition to his superb individual play, Ngata helped bring some stability at an uncertain time for the organization. The second act and eventual storybook ending to Lewis’ Hall of Fame career with the Ravens may have never materialized had general manager Ozzie Newsome not drafted Ngata in 2006. In the months leading up to that draft, it was no secret that a disenchanted Lewis — who was also rumored to be seeking a new contract — had requested to be traded and voiced his displeasure about the Ravens lacking a beefy defensive tackle to keep blockers away from him. Ngata became an immediate impact starter for a defense that led the NFL in total yards allowed and total points allowed and set team records for interceptions (28) and sacks (60), and the Ravens finished a franchise-best 13-3 in the regular season with Lewis’ spirits and play improving from the previous year.

A slam-dunk choice for the Ravens’ Ring of Honor sooner than later, Ngata finishes his NFL career having played in 180 games and collected 515 tackles, 32 1/2 sacks, seven forced fumbles, and five interceptions.

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Chapter 8: Just a regular Joe

Posted on 14 February 2019 by Nestor Aparicio

 

“That’s just Joe being Joe! Joe is always gonna be Joe.”

– Ray Lewis (Nov. 2012)

 

 

 

 

THE TALLEST BUILDINGS IN THE skyline over downtown Philadelphia are vividly clear over the gridiron at Audubon High School. Not too far from this small town in New Jersey in the distance you can see the Comcast Center and One Liberty Place tower over Center City in the City of Brotherly Love. The white cement structure that serves as bleachers behind a tiny brick school façade can almost be confused for something from a movie set in 1950s Americana.

It was a field of dreams for Joe Flacco, but not necessarily a field of victories. Hop on the internet and take a look at the picture of his wife snapping him a bottle of champagne as if it were a football as part of their wedding album. She’s the center. His groomsmen are the linemen. Then you will understand this field and this scene. This is the place where Joe Flacco led the Audubon Green Wave to a 4-6 finish in his 2002 senior football season.

“We stunk,” says Flacco of his tiny high school with less than 100 in each graduating class. “It was a small school, and we were never really good, but we loved playing here. Football here was always fun because it was always with your friends and the kids you grew up with from the neighborhood.”

To understand and to fully appreciate Joe Flacco, you need to visit Audubon, New Jersey and see his view of the world as a Super Bowl MVP and Baltimore sports hero, where for months after the win storefronts still had homemade posters and window stickers celebrating their unlikely hometown champion.

“Where I live and where I’m from it’s right in the middle of the middle of all hardcore Philly sports fans,” Flacco said. “Philadelphia is in Pennsylvania, but the Jersey side is the heart of the fan base for all of the teams. It’s all Eagles, Phillies, Flyers, and Sixers here. It’s always been like that, and it’ll always be like that. I’ve been around crazy, passionate, vocal fans all my life.”

These Philadelphia natives are the same fans who are famous for once booing Santa Claus. Toughness kinda came with the turf for Joe Flacco.

His hometown doesn’t look quite like a scene from Rocky, like the west side of the Delaware River or Highlandtown in Baltimore with traditional East Coast row homes and narrow, one-way streets. It’s more like something from a John Mellencamp song, like “Small Town” or “Pink Houses.” It’s more Main Street USA with the very apparent stability of blue-collar family life and small ranch-style homes separated by modest yards, and picket fences. If it were Baltimore, it’d be Parkville or Catonsville – just closer to downtown.

Audubon High School is exactly six miles from the front gates of Lincoln Financial Field, where Flacco had his own rocky homecoming vs. the Eagles in a Ravens 24-23 loss in Week 2 of the 2012 season, his only chance in five years as Baltimore Ravens quarterback to play a regular season game just a long jog from his hometown.

In Audubon, Flacco is, well, just a regular Joe for the most part.

“It’s almost like a different life because I grew up around here. I’ve always been around here, and I hope it stays like this,” he said. “It’s my home. It’s where I want to be, close to my family. All of my family is here.”

Flacco’s ascension to Super Bowl MVP and World Champion reads straight from the library of the Horatio Alger catalog.

Son of a mortgage banker Steve Flacco and his wife, Karen, who were high school sweethearts, Joe is the oldest of six children – five boys and a girl. Flacco played three sports and loved all of them as long as he can remember. Despite his dad being just 5-foot-10, Joe went through a surprising and dramatic growth spurt in high school, sprouting more than six inches. His unusually strong arm caught the eye of a handful of college

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