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Ravens-Broncos: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 22 September 2018 by Luke Jones

Keep it simple.

Running the football and stopping the run might be as clichéd as it gets when reciting keys to a game, but the Ravens can’t afford to get cute against Denver with three straight road games — two against 2017 playoff teams — looming after Sunday’s home affair. Meanwhile, the Broncos have started 2-0 for the sixth straight year, but winning their first two games — both at home just like this season — didn’t mean much a year ago on their way to a 5-11 campaign in head coach Vance Joseph’s first year.

A win resets positive vibes and puts the Week 2 loss at Cincinnati in the rear-view mirror, but a defeat would conjure memories of last season when the Ravens couldn’t handle their business at home against underwhelming opponents such as Chicago in Week 6 and the Bengals in Week 17, two losses that led to them falling short of the playoffs.

It’s time to go on record as the Ravens play Denver for the 12th time in the all-time regular-season series with the Broncos holding the 6-5 advantage. Baltimore holds a 5-1 edge in games played at M&T Bank Stadium. Of course, the Ravens are 2-0 against Denver in their playoff history.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Alex Collins will double his season total for touches in a better commitment to the run. When you’re crushing an opponent through the air in Week 1 and falling behind by three touchdowns in Week 2, the volume of rushing attempts is always going to suffer. However, the explosive Collins averaging only 10 touches per game isn’t a winning formula, and the Ravens have gained just 3.3 yards per carry so far in 2018, meaning they must be more productive when Marty Mornhinweg does call for runs. Denver led the NFL at just 3.3 yards per carry allowed a year ago and is surrendering 3.6 per attempt so far in 2018, so don’t expect a monster day for Collins. He’ll be more involved, however.

2. Broncos running back Phillip Lindsay will receive a rude awakening after a historic start to his career. The rookie became the first undrafted player in NFL history with more than 100 yards from scrimmage in each of his first two games, meaning he’s firmly on the opposition’s radar now. The Ravens are concerned with Linday’s speed, which plays more to the edges as Denver continues to employ principles of Gary Kubiak’s outside-zone system. The potential absences of linebacker C.J. Mosley and defensive tackle Michael Pierce are clear concerns, but the ability of outside linebackers and defensive ends to contain will be just as critical. The Ravens will hold Lindsay to under 60 yards.

3. Brandon Carr will continue a hot start by intercepting Broncos quarterback Case Keenum. Lost in the disappointment of last week’s performance against the Bengals was how well the veteran continued to play as Pro Football Focus grades Carr as the third-best cornerback in the NFL through two weeks. He won’t continue playing at that elite level, but the Ravens will need him and Marlon Humphrey to lock down the outside because Mosley’s potential absence and Tavon Young’s Week 2 struggles leave concerns about covering the middle of the field. That said, Keenum has already thrown four interceptions in his first two games and will be pressured into throwing another key one.

4. Von Miller will record a sack, but the Ravens offensive line will bounce back. The Ravens are one of only four opponents the six-time Pro Bowl selection hasn’t registered a sack against — he did share one with Elvis Dumervil in the 2012 playoffs — but Miller will present big problems for right tackle James Hurst, leaving tight end Nick Boyle to help him out as much as possible. The key will be Ronnie Stanley elevating his play against rookie first-round pick Bradley Chubb on the opposite side. The offensive line needs to play better collectively, but Stanley has graded just 45th among offensive tackles by PFF. He’ll be better, and the Ravens will protect the pocket more effectively than last week.

5. Joe Flacco will be turnover-free and efficient in a balanced 23-16 win over the Broncos. Whenever Flacco has a monster game throwing the ball at will like he did in Week 1, we’re quickly reminded that he isn’t one of the few quarterbacks who can consistently thrive throwing the ball 40-plus times in a game. The Ravens need to be more productive on the ground moving forward, especially playing four of their next five on the road after Sunday. Denver is talented enough to come into Baltimore and win if John Harbaugh’s team sleepwalks again early, but the Ravens are a better team playing at home and the Broncos’ narrow home wins over Seattle and Oakland were hardly statement games. A win puts the Ravens back on track, but a loss could set off an early-season slide. Home-field advantage and extra rest following a Thursday game will be the difference in a win lacking style points.

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Ravens aiming to get back to their roots in Week 3

Posted on 18 September 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens had made it a one-possession game for the first time since the opening period and needed a defensive stop in the fourth quarter at Cincinnati last Thursday.

Instead, the Bengals marched 65 yards and took more than six minutes off the clock before Randy Bullock’s 28-yard field goal made it a 31-23 deficit with 2:59 remaining. Just under half of that yardage came on the ground as Cincinnati rushed six times for 32 yards, including Joe Mixon’s 21-yard cutback run that was the key play in setting up an easy field goal.

No, the Bengals’ rushing attack didn’t gash the Ravens, but 108 yards on 28 carries over the course of the night helped control the tempo after quarterback Andy Dalton connected with wide receiver A.J. Green for three touchdown passes in the game’s first 17 minutes.

“It was OK — not great. It needs to be better. It’s not to our standards,” said head coach John Harbaugh of his run defense. “All our guys will probably echo that. We have a high, high standard. It might be good enough for other teams around the league, but it’s not going to be good enough for us.”

Lost in the heartbreak of “fourth-and-12” and the focus on Jimmy Smith’s absence at the end of last season was the declining standard of the rush defense. Stopping the run has defined the Ravens more than any other quality over two-plus decades in Baltimore as they finished in the top 10 in yards per carry allowed for 20 straight seasons and had only four finishes outside the top nine in rushing yards surrendered from 1999-2016.

In 2017, however, the Ravens finished just 16th in yards per carry allowed and surrendered a full 4.0 yards per carry — without rounding up or down — for the first time in franchise history last season. They also ranked 15th in rushing yards per game surrendered. The four-game absence of run-stopping nose tackle Brandon Williams in the first half of the season didn’t help those numbers, but the Ravens still allowed more than 3.9 yards per carry in the 12 games he played, which would have left them 10th in the NFL.

It was less than two years ago when the Ravens ranked first in run defense entering Week 14 of the 2016 season and some were even singing the group’s praises from a historical context. Baltimore lost three of the final four games that season while giving up 544 rushing yards and six touchdowns on 4.4 yards per carry to drop them from that all-time-great conversation to fifth in the league. The Ravens’ run defense has had strong games since then, but the unit has yet to recapture its aura or same level of consistency.

To be clear, the run defense hardly qualifies as a weakness, but when you devote the kind of resources the Ravens have to the defensive side of the ball in terms of cap dollars and draft picks in recent years, you’d like to see more dominant results and less wavering at critical times. It’s certainly something Harbaugh’s team wants to get back to in 2018, beginning with Sunday’s tilt against 2-0 Denver.

The surprising Broncos enter Week 3 ranked second in the NFL in rushing offense and are trying not to put too much on the right shoulder of quarterback Case Keenum, who is coming off a surprising 2017 season with Minnesota after years as a journeyman. Despite being listed third on the Broncos’ current depth chart, rookie running back Phillip Lindsay is third in the league in rushing and became the first undrafted player in NFL history to eclipse 100 yards from scrimmage in each of his first two games.

“It’s incredible, these [rookie] free agent running backs around the league,” Harbaugh said. “He’s fast — that’s what stands out about him. He’s quick, he’s kind of fearless. They put him in good situations, [and] they get the ball to both rookie backs — [Royce] Freeman from Oregon, too.

“They get the ball outside quick on the edge a couple different ways. They run a lot of draws really well, some screens. They get him in space. The offensive line has done a good job, but this kid is running and he’s making plays with his speed and his fearlessness.”

The Ravens could be without three-time Pro Bowl linebacker C.J. Mosley on Sunday, but it will be up to the rest of the front seven to slow the backfield trio of Lindsay, Freeman, and Devontae Booker. Even with talented Broncos receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders to consider, the Ravens will try to force Keenum to beat them through the air as he’s already thrown four interceptions in two home games with his new team.

On the flip side, Baltimore needs to get its own running game going after averaging just 3.3 yards per carry in the first two weeks. Game situation has certainly impacted the ground attack as the Ravens were throwing the ball against Buffalo at will in the season opener and the Bengals exploded to an early 21-point lead last Thursday, but quarterback Joe Flacco throwing 50-plus times just hasn’t been a formula for success over the years.

Running back Alex Collins has touched the ball just 20 times for 109 total yards over the first two contests after nearly rushing for 1,000 yards and ranking ninth in the league in yards per carry last season. According to Pro Football Focus, Collins has forced 10 missed tackles on those 20 touches in 2018, which would suggest a need to block better and to give him the ball more frequently.

“We’re not in any way pleased with the numbers,” Harbaugh said. “And we’re very determined to run the ball well because we think it fits our offense. It’s something that opens everything else up, so we have to get that going.”

Stopping the run and running the ball, two staples of success the Ravens need to rediscover entering a critical early-season stretch that includes four road games in the next six weeks.

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