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Twelve Ravens thoughts counting down to training camp

Posted on 13 July 2020 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ravens regular-season moment No. 3: Dilfer’s redemption

Posted on 25 June 2020 by Luke Jones

Check out the No. 4 regular-season moment in Ravens history HERE.

The Tennessee Titans were the defending AFC champions and the NFL’s best team while the Ravens were still trying to regroup entering Week 11 of the 2000 season.

The good vibes and playoff aspirations accompanying a 5-1 start had dimmed with a three-game losing streak and an unthinkable five-game stretch in which the Ravens failed to score a single touchdown. Baltimore had finally snapped that futility with a 27-7 win at Cincinnati the previous week, but beating the lowly Bengals wasn’t convincing anyone that Brian Billick’s team was truly back on track.

Just three weeks earlier, the Ravens had suffered a home loss to the 8-1 Titans, a game in which starting quarterback Tony Banks was benched in favor of Trent Dilfer. The sixth overall pick of the 1994 draft and former Tampa Bay quarterback had thrown three touchdowns in the win over the Bengals in his second start, but going to Adelphia Coliseum — a place where Tennessee hadn’t lost since its opening the previous year — was a much different test for someone with a reputation for making the critical mistake at the worst time.

The clash between the AFC Central rivals and best defenses in the league started perfectly for Baltimore as Dilfer’s 46-yard touchdown pass to Qadry Ismail and a Jamal Lewis 2-yard touchdown run made it 14-0, but Titans quarterback Steve McNair threw two touchdowns in the second quarter as the Ravens held a narrow 17-14 lead at halftime. That score held until the fourth quarter when Titans kicker Al Del Greco tied the game with a 23-yard field goal with a little over eight minutes to play.

After punting on the ensuing possession, the Ravens got the ball back deep in Tennessee territory when Peter Boulware stripped a scrambling McNair on third down and Rob Burnett recovered the fumble at the 22-yard line with 4:07 remaining. Considering the way the Baltimore defense had played in the second half, even a field goal would be a perfectly fine outcome if Dilfer and the offense could trim time off the clock.

But on third-and-7, disaster struck as Dilfer’s pass intended for speedy wide receiver Patrick Johnson was intercepted by Titans safety Perry Phenix and returned 87 yards for the go-ahead touchdown with 2:30 to go. It was the kind of play that had too often doomed Dilfer in Tampa Bay and seemingly sunk the Ravens in a game they desperately wanted to win.

However, Del Greco’s first missed extra point in seven years offered a sliver of hope if Dilfer could regroup against a defense that had blanked Baltimore since the second quarter. The 28-year-old now had the chance to rewrite his story or to leave Billick further pondering his quarterback problems with Thanksgiving right around the corner.

The two-minute drive was far from pretty as the Ravens committed two penalties and faced a third-and-5 from their own 35 when a scrambling Dilfer found veteran tight end Shannon Sharpe downfield for a critical 36-yard completion. Nothing came easy on the next set of downs either as Dilfer threw deep and incomplete to Ismail on fourth-and-2.

But a penalty flag came as Tennessee cornerback Dainon Sidney collided with Ismail just short of the goal line for pass interference. The Ravens had a first down from the 2 with 49 seconds remaining.

After Lewis was stuffed for no gain on first down and the ball was spiked to stop the clock to set up a third-and-goal from the 2, Dilfer rolled to his right and fired a strike to Johnson, who kept his feet inbounds for the touchdown with 25 seconds to go.

Not only was Johnson the man Dilfer had targeted on his abysmal interception minutes earlier, but the former second-round pick who’d never lived up to expectations dropped a potential touchdown earlier that day. The extra point by Matt Stover gave the Ravens a 24-23 lead as Dilfer had answered the call.

“For me, poise is just trusting the people around me,” Dilfer said after the game. “I’ve lacked poise in my career because I didn’t trust what’s going on around me. I told these guys I’ve worked my whole career to play with a bunch of guys like this.”

The redemption story wasn’t quite complete, however, as McNair completed an 11-yard pass and then furiously broke free for a 20-yard scramble to move the Titans to the Baltimore 25 with only three seconds to go. Regarded as one of the league’s most reliable kickers for years, Del Greco would have his own chance at redemption with a 43-yard try to win it for Tennessee.

The kick faded wide right as Dilfer fell facedown in relief and Billick raised his arms in victory on the sideline. A game the Ravens had seemingly won, lost, won, and lost again ended in a critical 24-23 victory.

Dilfer wouldn’t be asked to be much more than a game manager for the rest of the season as a historic defense and strong running game led the way, but that touchdown drive spawned confidence that Baltimore could win with him under center. The win showed the Ravens could beat anybody anywhere and were legitimate Super Bowl contenders despite their troubling midseason swoon.

No one knew exactly what would unfold in the coming weeks and months, but anything seemed possible after that last-second win over the mighty Titans.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we have to come back here for the playoffs,” right tackle Harry Swayne said after the game. “If that’s the case, it’d be like, ‘We’ve been here. Let’s do it again.'”

The words proved prophetic two months later as another hard-fought win at Adelphia Coliseum in the divisional round — complete with more Del Greco woes — proved to be the defining stop on the Ravens’ path to their first Super Bowl.

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Introducing the top 25 regular-season moments in Ravens history

Posted on 04 May 2020 by Luke Jones

1. Beating Jacksonville
2. “We know what kind of quarterback we have”
3. Dilfer’s redemption
4. Ruining homecoming
5. “Hey diddle diddle, Ray Rice up the middle”
6. “Would it be us if we didn’t end it that way?”
7. “Something that you dream of”
8. “I guess the dude is Nostradamus”
9. “He seems to always be around it”
10. “Not bad for a running back”
11. Saluting Heinz Field
12. “Almost as if he knew what was coming”
13. The Kick-6
14. Five touchdowns in 125 seconds
15. “I didn’t want to hurt my team”
16. “That’s one that loosens your teeth”
17. “Our backs were against the wall”
18. 2,000 and then some
19. “You want to be the last team standing”
20. “Hell yeah, coach, let’s go for it!”
21. Scott blows up Roethlisberger
22. Win or “get run out of town”
23. “I got this”
24. New hope
25. The first touchdown

There has been no shortage of great moments over the Ravens’ quarter-century in Baltimore.

Two Super Bowl championships.

The Mile High Miracle.

Ray Lewis wrestling the ball away from Eddie George.

Shannon Sharpe’s 96-yard catch and gallop to silence the “Black Hole” in Oakland.

The 83-yard touchdown run by Ray Rice to kick off a wild-card round demolition of New England.

But you need no reminder of the unforgettable postseason moments that are a fan’s dessert after the meat and potatoes of the regular season. Right now, we yearn for those daily and weekly servings of escape that sports provide, which is why I’ve elected to dive deeper with the top 25 regular-season moments in Ravens history as the organization prepares to kick off its 25th season in Baltimore this fall.

By no means am I the definitive voice on the topic, but as a 13-year-old starved for football when the Ravens arrived in 1996, a young adult who bought season tickets right out of college, and eventually a beat reporter lucky enough to cover his hometown team, I’ve had a pretty good seat from different perspectives. In the end, my list will very likely differ from yours, which is what makes this fun.

My top 25 regular-season moments come solely from game action, so we’re not considering extracurricular activities such as Ravens Ring of Honor inductions, pre-game tributes, or Lewis’ unforgettable dance that whipped M&T Bank Stadium into a frenzy.

Of course, the term “moment” requires some wiggle room as some choices would be better described as a sequence of events or moments combining to produce a memorable outcome, an impressive accomplishment, or raw emotion. Context definitely matters as I attempt to weigh the historical significance against the real-time reaction each moment garnered. That’s why you’re likely to see a greater number of moments from the more accomplished teams in Ravens history.

To offer an idea of how lofty the standard was to make the cut — or to anger you right off the bat — before we begin revealing one moment at a time, I took a look at some honorable mentions below:

Lamar Jackson’s Cincinnati spin (2019)

If we were to make a list of the greatest individual plays in franchise history, this sensational 47-yard touchdown run would be an easy choice, but the Ravens already led by three scores at the time and Jackson was on his way to a perfect 158.3 passer rating that day, his second in what would be an MVP season. I’d also bet that we’ll see an even more spectacular play from Jackson in a more crucial moment in the future. Make no mistake, the 23-year-old will still make a couple appearances on the list.

Jermaine Lewis excels through grief (2000)

Less than two weeks after the stillborn delivery of his son, the two-time Pro Bowl selection had punt returns of 54 and 89 yards for touchdowns as the Ravens bested the playoff-hopeful New York Jets in a 34-20 final to close the 2000 regular season. The sight of Lewis pointing to the heavens after each score was special, but the University of Maryland product would top that a month later with an 84-yard kick return for a touchdown that removed any lingering doubt that the Ravens would win Super Bowl XXXV.

Ending the touchdown drought (2000)

As time goes on, the idea that the Ravens won the Super Bowl in a season in which they went five straight games without scoring a touchdown feels more preposterous, especially considering they managed to win twice over that stretch. Still, the Ravens were in the midst of a three-game losing streak when Trent Dilfer connected with Brandon Stokley for a 14-yard touchdown at Cincinnati, a play that elicited a loud exhale in Baltimore and began an 11-game winning streak ending in championship glory.

Qadry Ismail goes off in Pittsburgh (1999)

The Ravens had never won at Three Rivers Stadium and certainly weren’t an offensive juggernaut in head coach Brian Billick’s first year as Tony Banks, Baltimore’s third starting quarterback of the season, completed just eight of his 26 passes on the day. However, Ismail, a journeyman in the midst of a career year, hauled in five of those for a franchise-record 258 yards and three touchdowns of 54 or more yards in a 31-24 win. No other Raven has even cracked the 200-yard receiving mark in a game.

Priest who? (1998)

Many recall one-hit wonder Jay Graham and his 154-yard rushing day a year earlier, but Priest Holmes was making his first career start and had only seven career carries as the Ravens played their first ever prime-time home game and were without star linebacker Ray Lewis. Holmes, a 1997 undrafted free agent, wowed everyone with a 173-yard, two-touchdown night in a 31-24 win over the Bengals. Holmes would go on to be the 2001 rushing champion and a three-time Pro Bowl back with Kansas City.

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