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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Super Bowl LIV

Posted on 03 February 2020 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Twelve Ravens thoughts ahead of Super Bowl LIV

Posted on 23 January 2020 by Luke Jones

With a number of Ravens players and coaches at the Pro Bowl this week and the organization shifting into offseason mode, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The disappointment of an early playoff exit remains, but seeing Lamar Jackson interact with young fans and other players in Orlando is a reminder of how special this season was for the MVP quarterback. Even if it is just the Pro Bowl, the 23-year-old having that stage is pretty great.

2. Six weeks ago, Terrell Suggs was playing out the string for a last-place team and his former team was the clear Super Bowl favorite. The 37-year-old being the one to play for an NFL championship next week is your latest reminder that sports are weird sometimes.

3. After rushing for 297 yards and one touchdown from 2015-18, Raheem Mostert ran for 220 yards and four touchdowns in the NFC Championship game. There’s no need for an indictment of the Ravens or the five other teams with which the 27-year-old played before San Francisco to appreciate this story.

4. Eric DeCosta must prepare for life without Marshal Yanda, but the Ravens shouldn’t pressure the eight-time Pro Bowl guard into a decision anytime soon. Jonathan Ogden didn’t make his final call on retirement until June. You can always make room for an elite player’s return.

5. Job situations are fluid this time of year, but the coaching staff remaining intact is surprising. That really speaks to the working environment created by John Harbaugh and how the organization has taken care of its assistants.

6. I see no reason why Matthew Judon wouldn’t hit the market, but I’m curious how Baltimore’s need at outside linebacker and Za’Darius Smith’s performance in Green Bay might impact Judon’s valuation. Yes, we’ll hear “right player, right price,” but that’s always a moving target involving many variables.

7. Skepticism remains when it comes to wide receiver, but the goal should be an impact addition to help this offense play off schedule like it was forced to do in the playoff loss. Whether that’s a veteran or someone from a deep wide receiver draft class remains to be seen.

8. After finishing sixth or better for seven straight seasons in Rick Gosselin’s renowned special teams rankings, Baltimore fell to 27th. Football Outsiders ranked the Ravens 10th in special-teams efficiency and 24th in weighted efficiency, reflecting late-season struggles. There’s some work to do in that phase this offseason.

9. Harbaugh said the Ravens had their “best year” in terms of injuries, which is debatable after a really healthy 2018. Credit goes to their efforts revamping their strength, conditioning, and nutrition programs, but luck is also a factor, which picks at the wound of a 14-2 team not advancing further.

10. Nearly $30 million in salary cap space prompts much discussion about free agents, but extending Ronnie Stanley should be a top priority with Marlon Humphrey on deck. A new Jackson contract could come as soon as next year. Outside additions are great, but keeping this core together is paramount.

11. Harbaugh said he’d probably go the other way handling Week 17 if Baltimore is back in that spot. Correlation doesn’t imply causation. Rust was a possible factor, but Jackson taking the shots Pittsburgh gave Robert Griffin III and getting hurt in a meaningless game would have definitely been a factor.

12. Asked about any perception that Tennessee had solved his offense, Harbaugh said, “If you think anybody has the answer in football, just wait until the next week and you’ll find out.” The Ravens may not go 14-2 again or break records in 2020, but the future remains very promising.

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Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, right, talks with San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, left, on the field before the start of the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019, in Baltimore, Md. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

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Week 17 win reinforces Harbaugh as right choice for NFL Coach of the Year

Posted on 30 December 2019 by Luke Jones

The Ravens didn’t need to win Sunday’s game, evident by the decision to sit MVP favorite Lamar Jackson and five other Pro Bowl selections after clinching the AFC’s No. 1 seed the previous week.

Sure, finishing a franchise-best 14-2 regular season, extending their team-record winning streak to 12 games, setting a few more records, and knocking AFC North rival Pittsburgh out of playoff contention were attractive carrots before the first-round bye, but none of those feats improved their chances of winning the Super Bowl, the ultimate goal for the best team in football. Sunday could have amounted to nothing more than three hours of holding your breath hoping Baltimore wouldn’t sustain any injuries that would harm a playoff run, and such a mindset would have been perfectly understandable.

But the 45 players who took part in Sunday’s game didn’t see it that way, perhaps the best testament yet to the culture overseen by head coach John Harbaugh — one that began being shaped years ago.

It would have been easy to coast in a game of no tangible consequence. Established veterans who did play could have taken exception to not being anointed as someone valuable enough to hold out. Young players could have lacked focus seeing Jackson and other veteran leaders in street clothes.

The Ravens not only won, but they flattened a Steelers team that had everything to play for. To perform in such a way without several of their best players should serve as an emphatic period for Harbaugh winning the NFL Coach of the Year award for the first time — in case you needed more convincing.

However, a look at recent award winners suggests Harbaugh probably isn’t the slam-dunk choice he should be with voters. The award is often bestowed on the coach who oversaw the most improvement in the win-loss department from the previous season — usually a difficult one — or who endured a degree of adversity that shapes a compelling narrative. How else do you explain Bill Belichick winning only three times in his two decades in New England?

On the surface, the Ravens’ four-game improvement in the win department from last year pales in comparison to Kyle Shanahan and San Francisco going from a 4-12 record in 2018 to a 13-3 mark and the top seed in the NFC. Baltimore lost several key veterans in the offseason, dealt with its share of injuries early on, and looked quite mortal after back-to-back losses in September to fall to 2-2, but Sean Payton navigating Drew Brees’ six-game absence and other injuries to a 13-3 record for New Orleans makes for a more compelling story.

Shanahan and Payton are two of several candidates worthy of consideration, but anyone trying to shortchange Harbaugh’s case on the grounds that he has the best team in the league, the overwhelming MVP favorite, 12 Pro Bowl selections, two coveted coordinators, and a highly respected front office is to ignore the process that brought Baltimore to this point as one of the best regular-season teams we’ve seen over the last three decades.

Even if you want to chalk up Jackson’s transcendent play to other teams simply being blind to his upside and impressive drive to be great, Harbaugh and the Ravens embraced his unique skills, promoted Greg Roman to offensive coordinator, and rebuilt their offensive system from the ground up this offseason to cater to his strengths even after a surprising 6-1 finish and trip to the playoffs last year. After Harbaugh spoke of an offensive revolution that drew plenty of skepticism this offseason, Baltimore rewrote the franchise record book, set a new NFL single-season rushing mark, and became the first team in league history to average more than 200 passing yards and 200 rushing yards per game. The Ravens used play fakes and pre-snap movement better than anyone in the league to put additional pressure on a defense already trying to account for what could be the greatest rushing quarterback in NFL history who also showed substantial improvement with his accuracy this season.

“John is the one who really orchestrated the vision for this offense and kind of set us on our way to do it and painted the perimeters and painted a picture of what he wanted it to look like and let us do our job,” said Roman, who’s now drawing interesting as a potential head coach elsewhere. “That speaks highly of a leader. But really, the three years I’ve been here, it’s all about football. It’s all about getting better, and that serves us all. We don’t waste time.”

Harbaugh also doesn’t waste in-game opportunity, which is why the football analytics community continues to praise the Ravens coach for his grasp of win probability and leverage on fourth downs in an age when so many coaches are still more concerned with merely prolonging the game or keeping the score respectable with conservative decisions rather than giving their teams the best chance to win.

It isn’t just about redefining offense in the NFL or going for it on fourth-and-short in their own territory, however. For years, Harbaugh has consulted with a leadership council of veterans to monitor potential issues in the locker room or to simply gauge when it might be time to take the foot off the gas for a given practice. Sometimes it’s a gesture as simple as allowing players to play music in the pre-game locker room to ease anxiety or to invite the families of coaches and players to spend time at the training facility.

This all goes into the culture that’s been shaped for years and has gone to new heights with the transcendent Jackson leading the way on the field. You don’t absorb as many newcomers on defense as seamlessly as the Ravens did in the middle of the season without talented coaches and a healthy locker room to make it work and to reap the rewards for a defense that’s become a very worthy partner to a record-setting offense.

Such an environment helps explain why the Ravens played with such tenacity in a game that didn’t mean much for their ultimate goal. Many within the organization have had important roles in creating that atmosphere over the years, but Harbaugh’s day-to-day vision has put the Ravens in position to do something special in 2019 with more to come in the new year.

“I wasn’t afraid to talk about this in March or April or May or June or July or August or September, and we got laughed at quite a bit, you know?” Harbaugh said. “But that’s OK. If they aren’t laughing at you, your dreams aren’t big enough. We’ve got big dreams, big goals, big ambitions, big faith, ‘big truss,’ alright? That was not planned either.

“We’re not afraid to step out there and speak from the heart on those kinds of things.”

That mindset and the success that’s followed make Harbaugh the right choice for NFL Coach of the Year, whether voters ultimately see it that way or not.

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Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker (9) is surrounded by teammates after kicking the winning field goal against the San Francisco 49ers in the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019, in Baltimore, Md. Ravens won 20-17. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 13 win over San Francisco

Posted on 03 December 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens winning their eighth in a row in a 20-17 final over San Francisco, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. I’ll gladly take a rematch of this one for Super Bowl LIV in Miami. The 49ers held the Baltimore offense to 4.6 yards per play, its second-lowest mark of 2019. Weather was a factor, but the San Francisco defense proved its might in its first look against this unique offense.

2. Despite covering only 34 yards, the final scoring drive lasted 12 plays and took the final 6:28 off the clock. The Ravens certainly didn’t want to be in a fourth-and-1 situation at their own 44, but their ability to monopolize the clock has to be so deflating to the opposition.

3. San Francisco’s preference to crash inside and invite Lamar Jackson to run was interesting. Coincidence or not, Jackson’s four 100-yard rushing games have come in Baltimore’s four lowest offensive scoring outputs this season. Is your best hope to take away everything else, keep hitting him, and go for a strip?

4. I’ve repeatedly mentioned his improved ball security, but Jackson not losing his first fumble of 2019 until early December is a testament to how far he’s come from his rookie season when he fumbled at least once in every start. San Francisco safety Marcell Harris simply made a great play.

5. The run defense entering Week 13 ranked third in yards per game is why we shouldn’t rely on volume stats while it ranked 19th in yards per carry allowed. It matters little when owning sizable leads, but the run defense hasn’t been particularly good this year, especially on the edges.

6. You had to remember Raheem Mostert actually being a Raven in order to call this a revenge game, but he’s carved out a nice place in San Francisco and was averaging just under 5.4 yards per carry even before his 146-yard outburst. That’s a talented running game the 49ers have.

7. A week after erasing Aaron Donald, the offensive line held likely Defensive Rookie of the Year Nick Bosa to a single tackle. The talented Jackson makes everyone’s job easier, but this group continues to get better and is playing outstanding football.

8. I wonder if John Harbaugh grows tired of questions about going for it on fourth down so frequently. Then again, he and a few others will lose that edge once other coaches decide to stop drowning in the shallow waters of risk aversion and such thinking becomes more commonplace.

9. Kyle Shanahan was smart to be aggressive against Baltimore, but his clock management at the end of the first half was poor and the fourth-and-1 pass play from the shotgun on his team’s final drive was questionable at best. He’s still done a heck of a job with the 49ers.

10. Speaking of that fourth-down play, Chris Wormley batted down the Jimmy Garoppolo pass and had a strong day as the Ravens played more 3-4 base defense than they had all season due to San Francisco’s use of heavier personnel. Wormley also registered four tackles and a half-sack.

11. Baltimore hasn’t needed to rely on special teams very often this year, but Marlon Humphrey’s blocked field goal, Sam Koch’s punt downed at the 1 by Chris Moore, and Justin Tucker’s game-winning field goal were reminders of how important that phase can still be, especially as January approaches.

12. There’s a long way to go, but the thought of the Ravens now controlling their path to securing home-field advantage throughout the playoffs less than 13 months after handing the reins to Jackson is something else. Baltimore last hosted an AFC Championship at Memorial Stadium on Jan. 3, 1971.

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San Francisco 49ers defensive back Marcell Harris (36) strips the ball from Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) to cause a fumble in the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019, in Baltimore, Md. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

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On imperfect day, everything still falls into place for Ravens

Posted on 02 December 2019 by Luke Jones

The weather was miserable.

The defense allowed its first opening-drive touchdown of the season and its highest rushing total since Week 4, the last time the Ravens actually lost a game.

The Baltimore offense produced its season low for points while Lamar Jackson lost a fumble for the first time since January and produced his lowest passing yardage total of the season.

Sunday felt far from perfect as the Ravens trailed in a game for the first time since before Halloween, yet they still beat the best team in the NFC. And they went to bed Sunday night knowing they now occupy the top spot in the AFC and control their path to securing home-field advantage throughout the playoffs for the first time in team history.

The 20-17 win over San Francisco was both a commentary on the 49ers being a dangerous adversary and how our expectations have changed watching the Ravens play nearly flawlessly over the previous six weeks. Beating a 10-1 opponent by any means and score should be celebrated unconditionally, but perceptions are warped when you’ve beaten the previous five opponents — four of them with winning records — by an average margin of four touchdowns, leaving some to ask a question or two about what happened after the grind-it-out win.

The truth is this was as valuable a victory for John Harbaugh’s team as any this season in how it relates to the big picture. The Ravens earned an abundance of style points in recent weeks and have really tested conventional thinking, but we know winning in the NFL isn’t easy. That’s a lesson that probably doesn’t need to be reiterated to the likes of Marshal Yanda, Earl Thomas, or Jimmy Smith at this point, but there were just enough mistakes on each side of the ball Sunday for the coaching staff to have the attention of anyone who might have been feeling a little too invincible after winning the previous three games by a combined 109 points.

You’re unlikely to see many plays from Sunday’s performance in Jackson’s 2019 highlight reel — other than his juke on 49ers cornerback K’Waun Williams that left Ravens defensive tackle Brandon Williams to “hope his ankles are OK” after the game — but the 22-year-old again played like an MVP when it mattered, going 3-for-3 for 27 yards and picking up two critical first downs on short-yardage runs on the final drive. After the game, Jackson said the cold, rainy weather messed with him “a lot” as a passer and he was still angry about the third-quarter fumble that threatened to swing the game in favor of the 49ers, but the ball remained in his hands whenever the Ravens needed a play against a tough San Francisco defense that was determined to hit the young quarterback hard and often. He rushed for over 100 yards for the fourth time this year, an NFL single-season record for a quarterback.

Sunday was also a reminder of what the Ravens still have in their back pocket despite not needing them as often this season. The light workload for veteran punter Sam Koch has served as a punchline for weeks, but his 61-yard punt pinned the 49ers back at their own 1 late in a third quarter that had featured Jackson’s fumble, a long San Francisco drive that ended with a field goal to tie the game at 17, and another Baltimore series that had stalled.

Then, there was Justin Tucker making his 15th career game-winning field goal. Attempting such a high-leverage kick from 49 yards away in those conditions, many kickers would probably hope for it be a coin flip. But Tucker again showed why he’s the NFL’s best, even if he’s kicking more extra points than field goals these days.

The Ravens now find themselves in the top spot via their head-to-head tiebreaker win over New England in Week 9. Baltimore will be favored to win each of its final four games to close the regular season. But a tweet from retired linebacker and current director of player engagement Jameel McClain late Sunday should resonate after the Ravens won their eighth straight game, their longest ever regular-season stretch.

Sunday showed the Ravens don’t need to be at their best to beat a top-tier opponent, a terrifying proposition for the rest of the NFL. But the narrow win reiterated that it won’t be easy the rest of the way.

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Ravens-49ers: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 01 December 2019 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — If Sunday’s meeting does turn out to be a Super Bowl LIV preview, the Ravens and San Francisco will hope for better weather in Miami two months from now.

John Harbaugh’s team seeks its eighth straight victory and the first 10-2 start in franchise history, but the elements will certainly be an additional challenge to playing the 10-1 49ers.

According to Weather.com, the forecast in Baltimore calls for substantial rain and temperatures in the mid-40s with winds 10 to 15 miles per hour. The field was covered until a little over two hours prior to kickoff as the morning rain intensified. The heaviest precipitation is expected to fall during the first half.

The Ravens will welcome back a key piece of their run defense as nose tackle Michael Pierce is active and will make his return from a two-game absence with a right ankle injury. Pierce practiced all week and was a full participant in Friday’s workout, a strong indication that he would play against the 49ers’ second-ranked rush offense.

Despite missing Friday’s practice and being listed as questionable with an ankle injury, rookie wide receiver Miles Boykin is active after going through a brief on-field morning workout.

It’s interesting to note the Ravens deactivated both Anthony Averett and Iman Marshall, leaving them with only four active cornerbacks. That’s a product of both the weather and San Francisco’s propensity for using at least two running backs or two tight ends on roughly 60 percent of its plays, according to SharpFootballStats.com. Counting two-way player Patrick Ricard, the Ravens have seven defensive lineman available for Sunday’s game.

Undrafted rookie Patrick Mekari will make his first NFL start at center after Matt Skura suffered a season-ending knee injury last week, but the bigger surprise was how the Ravens elected to manage their game-day offensive line reserves. Baltimore promoted offensive lineman Parker Ehinger from the practice squad to the 53-man roster Saturday, and he will serve in a backup capacity over rookie fourth-round pick Ben Powers, who is inactive for the 12th straight game.

San Francisco is in much worse shape than the Ravens from a health standpoint as starting running back Matt Breida (ankle), starting left tackle Joe Staley (finger), and starting defensive end Dee Ford (hamstring, quad) are all inactive. Ford was declared out on Friday, but there had been some optimism that the 49ers would have Breida and Staley available to play on Sunday.

Sunday’s referee is Brad Allen.

The Ravens are wearing their alternate black jerseys with black pants while San Francisco dons white tops and gold pants.

Sunday marks the sixth all-time meeting between these teams in the regular season with the Ravens enjoying a 3-2 advantage. Of course, that doesn’t include Baltimore’s 34-31 win over the 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII. San Francisco has never beaten the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.

Below are Sunday’s inactives:

BALTIMORE
QB Trace McSorley
WR Jaleel Scott
S Bennett Jackson
CB Anthony Averett
CB Iman Marshall
G Ben Powers
DL Zach Sieler

SAN FRANCISCO
DE Dee Ford
LT Joe Staley
RB Matt Breida
WR Dante Pettis
QB C.J. Beathard
K Chase McLaughlin
TE Levin Toilolo

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Ravens-49ers: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 30 November 2019 by Luke Jones

A Super Bowl rematch and preview?

The Ravens have emerged as the Super Bowl favorite in the eyes of many, but San Francisco is an overtime field goal away from still being undefeated, making this the largest remaining regular-season test for a John Harbaugh team that’s dominated the competition for the better part of the last six weeks. Both teams face an extra challenge in this one as the 49ers will play a 1 p.m. Eastern time zone game while Baltimore is on short rest after playing a Monday night game across the country in Los Angeles.

It’s time to go on the record as these teams meet for the sixth time ever in the regular season and the first time since 2015. The Ravens lead the all-time series by a 3-2 margin and defeated San Francisco 34-31 in Super Bowl XLVII nearly seven years ago.

Below are five predictions for Monday night:

1. The Ravens will lose a fumble for the first time since Week 9. The loss of center Matt Skura to a season-ending knee injury and the elevation of rookie Patrick Mekari to the starting lineup already raised concern since Baltimore works from the shotgun or pistol formation roughly 95 percent of the time, but Sunday’s forecast continues to call for rain, creating an extra challenge against the NFC’s best defense. Remarkably, the Ravens have lost only four fumbles all season despite many mesh-point plays in which the quarterback or running back can be prone to mistake. They’re probably due for another.

2. Mark Andrews and George Kittle will each catch a touchdown. Pro Football Focus ranks Kittle first and Andrews second in its season grading at the tight end position, which says a lot about the former fifth- and third-round draft picks. Despite being an every-down player compared to Andrews having more of a situational workload, Kittle has only three touchdown receptions in nine games this season. Meanwhile, Andrews is one touchdown catch shy of tying the franchise single-season record for a tight end (seven), which is currently shared by Todd Heap (2005) and Dennis Pitta (2012).

3. Chuck Clark will intercept his first pass of the season. It’s easy to take for granted what Clark has done replacing Tony Jefferson at safety, relaying the calls in the defensive huddle, and moving down to the dime spot since he doesn’t make many splash plays. However, his emergence is one of the notable reasons why this ascending defense now ranks in the top 10 in several categories and is fourth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric. Clark and other defensive teammates will have a substantial challenge slowing Kittle, but he’ll bait 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo into an underneath mistake in wet conditions.

4. Lamar Jackson will set an NFL record with his fourth 100-yard rushing game of 2019. The 49ers defense is much stronger against the pass, but the heralded group is just 19th against the run, which spells trouble against a rushing attack averaging 210.5 yards per game. Nothing Jackson does surprises me anymore as he enters Week 13 tied for the NFL lead in touchdown passes, but the weather and matchup set up for this to be more of a legs day for the MVP favorite. He hasn’t eclipsed the century mark on the ground since Week 7, so why not? Doing so would set a single-season quarterback record.

5. The Ravens will win their eighth straight game in a 27-13 final over San Francisco. It’s not that I don’t believe the 49ers are a very good team, but it’d be disingenuous to say I believe this is going to be a particularly close game. What we’ve watched over the last six weeks is not only the most impressive regular-season run in Ravens history, but it ranks up there among the most impressive regular-season stretches by any team in recent memory. Double-digit blowouts aren’t the norm in the NFL, but the Ravens are trying to convince you otherwise, almost making you think you’re watching a Clemson or an Alabama play its early-season out-of-conference schedule instead of an NFL team going up against quality competition. This won’t last forever, but I’m not betting against Baltimore until it’s stopped. It won’t be a fourth straight Robert Griffin III mop-up game, but the 49ers don’t have the firepower to keep up with the NFL’s best offense, which still feels so strange to say about a Ravens team.

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Pierce, Boykin, four other Ravens listed as questionable for Sunday’s game

Posted on 29 November 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens listed six players as questionable for Sunday’s tilt against NFC-leading San Francisco, but all but one participated fully in the final practice of the week.

Wide receiver Miles Boykin was the only player absent from the field on Friday and was seen walking through the locker room with his ankle heavily taped. The rookie third-round pick is coming off his best showing since the bye with a two-catch, 54-yard effort in the 45-6 win over the Los Angeles Rams and hadn’t been on the injury report until Friday, leaving his status for Week 13 up in the air.

Defensive tackle Michael Pierce appears on track to potentially make his return from a right ankle injury that’s sidelined him since the Week 10 win in Cincinnati. He was a limited participant on Wednesday and Thursday before practicing fully on Friday, a positive development for the nose tackle’s availability against an offense ranking second in the NFL behind only Baltimore in rushing yards per game.

“You know I’m not going to go down that street of whether or not he’s going to do anything yet,” defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said. “But yes, it was good to see him out there for three days in a row.”

Defensive tackle Domata Peko (knee) missed the first two practices of the week while tight end Nick Boyle, outside linebacker Matthew Judon, and left guard Bradley Bozeman were all limited in some form with ankle injuries this week, leading to questionable designations.

The 49ers officially ruled out starting defensive end Dee Ford with quad and hamstring injuries, but left tackle Joe Staley (finger) and running back Matt Breida (ankle) are both questionable and could return to game action this week after practicing on a limited basis.

Below is the final injury report for Sunday’s game:

BALTIMORE
QUESTIONABLE: WR Miles Boykin (ankle), TE Nick Boyle (ankle), G Bradley Bozeman (ankle), LB Matthew Judon (ankle), DT Domata Peko (knee), DT Michael Pierce (ankle)

SAN FRANCISCO
OUT: DE Dee Ford (quad, hamstring), WR Dante Pettis (knee)
QUESTIONABLE: RB Matt Breida (ankle), OT Joe Staley (finger)

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Maintaining edge one of Ravens’ bigger challenges entering December

Posted on 29 November 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Asked about Sunday’s showdown between the Ravens and San Francisco being a potential Super Bowl preview, safety Earl Thomas offered an answer that raised some eyebrows.

“You think the 49ers are going to the Super Bowl? It could be, let’s see,” Thomas said. “We just go out there and try to play the best football we can possibly do. When the Super Bowl comes, whoever we play, they’re going to be in trouble.”

To describe the latter part of his answer as a Joe Namath-like guarantee would be a bit much since Thomas was directly asked about a contrived narrative, but the six-time Pro Bowl selection knew exactly what he was saying. It’s the kind of bravado reminiscent of a previous era of Ravens football, something that’s dissipated — at least in terms of expressing it to reporters — over the course of the John Harbaugh era. A 12th-year head coach who prefers his players to do their talking on the field probably didn’t love Thomas’ words, but we’re also discussing a team that has won seven in a row and outscored its last five opponents — four of them owning a combined 32-12 record — by an absurd 140 points.

The 10-1 49ers indeed present Baltimore’s greatest remaining regular-season challenge on paper, but similar thoughts were expressed about Seattle, New England, Houston, and the Los Angeles Rams and we saw how those meetings played out. Yes, the NFL has a way of humbling a team when it starts believing its own hype — we’ve also mentioned that a few times in recent weeks, haven’t we? — but the Ravens are in the midst of the most dominant all-around stretch in franchise history with a record-setting offense and an ascending defense that’s played as well as any in the league since mid-October.

All eyes should be on Sunday’s clash with San Francisco, but the best team in the NFL is allowed to have some extra swagger and should possess an unapologetic urgency to win the Super Bowl, which is what makes Thomas’ answer so refreshingly honest. Maintaining their current intensity level could be a challenge as the Ravens move into December with five regular-season games to go and even an 89.5 percent chance to secure a first-round bye, according to Football Outsiders. Chasing the Patriots for home-field advantage throughout the postseason will help, but it’s human nature to wonder if the Ravens can maintain this same edge after embarrassing quality opponents for the better part of the last six weeks.

Two months ago, the popular sentiment was that the Ravens were probably another year away from being a top-tier Super Bowl contender, but Lamar Jackson emerging as the clear MVP favorite has drastically altered expectations. And while it’s fun for observers to get ahead of themselves and ponder whether Harbaugh and Jackson might become the next Bill Belichick and Tom Brady as the Ravens reap the benefits of having a franchise quarterback on a rookie contract, not even that first championship is guaranteed.

Consider how quickly the fortunes of the Sean McVay-Jared Goff pairing have soured as the Rams went from being the NFC’s young darlings to a team with real roster and salary cap concerns. For a more historical example, Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino was NFL MVP and led 14-2 Miami to the Super Bowl in his second season before losing to Joe Montana and the 49ers and never getting back to the sport’s pinnacle game.

We often speak of a team’s championship window like there’s a gradual progression, but it often slams shut prematurely for any number of reasons, ranging from injuries and bad luck to poor roster management and coaching changes.

A veteran like Thomas has won a Super Bowl and understands how difficult it is to do after Seattle lost its bid to repeat and hasn’t been back to even an NFC championship game since then despite still having one of the league’s best quarterbacks in Russell Wilson. Marshal Yanda probably figured he’d have another real shot or two at a championship playing with a quarterback who was the Super Bowl MVP, but the Ravens won only one more playoff game with Joe Flacco at the helm and have since reset to give the seven-time Pro Bowl guard another title opportunity with the electric Jackson now leading the way.

The time is now for the Ravens to seize a championship opportunity. That’s why you can’t blame Thomas’ bravado and extra desire to speak a Super Bowl into existence despite the game itself still being more than two months away.

Motion sickness (for opposition)

The Ravens have used the most pre-snap motion in the NFL with ESPN taking an interesting look at what this has meant for the league’s top-ranked scoring and rushing offense.

Offensive coordinator Greg Roman was asked Friday about why he prefers using so much pre-snap movement and the challenge it presents to an opposing defense.

“Do we use motions? Oh yeah, we do, don’t we?” said Roman as he smiled. “I mean it depends what defensive call they have on. Different shifts and motions can certainly impact each differently. Then you end up with, as you look at an entire game, if you take every defensive call, every offensive call, every shift, every motion and you multiply them by the possibilities of adjustments, you’re looking at a lot of adjustments. We do what we do, and whatever happens, we’ll let the chips fall where they may. There certainly has to be some adjustments being made, and they can be very simple adjustments or very complex. Really and truly, some of them are more important than others, but I’m going to kind of keep those to myself.”

If that sounds confusing, imagine having to prepare for it. Such tactics were often described in the past as little more than smoke and mirrors, but the substance the Ravens bring behind that pre-snap movement continues to overwhelm defenses.

Wet Week 13?

The Weather.com forecast for Baltimore on Sunday calls for rain, temperatures reaching the high 40s, and winds 10 to 15 miles per hour with rainfall expected to be around half an inch.

That precipitation could complicate matters for an offense that uses the shotgun or pistol formation 95 percent of the time and will have rookie free agent Patrick Mekari making his first NFL start at center. The Ravens offense addressed that potential challenge by practicing with wet footballs during Thursday’s practice.

“We got some really good work with that,” Roman said. “Really, [the rain] affects the footing obviously for every player on the field. That can work as a positive or a negative to anybody really. I don’t think it’s specifically harder on the defense. People like to say that, but it really requires you to play in balance throughout the game, getting in and out of cuts, that kind of thing. You have to make sure your footwear is correct.

“But really, it comes down to being great with the ball-handling. That’s where you really [see] the impact of the game. You have to really focus in on the ball-handling.”

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Dear John Vidalin: Welcome to Birdland where baseball ain’t great and beer ain’t so cold anymore

Posted on 08 July 2018 by Nestor Aparicio

Dear John:

First, welcome to Baltimore. As I can see from all three of your LinkedIn profiles, you have spent a lot of time running the revenue parts of professional sports organizations all over the continent.

As we both know, it’s the dough that pays for the doughnuts – or the crab cakes in this case. So as the incoming Chief Operating Officer for Business Operations for the Baltimore Orioles, I’m gonna treat you the same way I treat Dick Cass up in Owings Mills. (And if I find out you gave a kidney to save someone’s life, you’ll get even better treatment, too!)

I’m the last of the local sports historians and media moguls around here – and the last one who doesn’t work for Peter or have to answer to the powers that be at MASN or around The Warehouse to dispense facts and information. So, with me you’ll get what my WNST business partner Brian Billick always called the “unfiltered information”– as opposed to the C.Y.A. nonsense and smoke being blown rectally from various parts of what’s left of the Baltimore Orioles brand upon your arrival.

By the way, I’m also the only media guy in Baltimore who loves hockey. And I even loved it before last month! I’m guessing 99 is a magic number in your life and part of the reason why you do this for a living. I hear you’re a nice guy. Calgary Flames. Time in the NFL, Houston and San Francisco, then Miami and the Heat after the chill of a post-Lebron world in the NBA.

All those situations, leagues, people, egos, money, sponsors, expectations – and then the hardest part – winning. And you’ll have nothing to do with that but as you learned along the way, it’ll have everything to do with what you do and your success here in Baltimore.

You were involved in the really awesome Colin Kaepernick and Jim Harbaugh parts of the San Francisco 49ers lore before the move from Candlestick to Santa Clara that literally wrecked the franchise. The losing certainly didn’t help what was a shaky proposition all the way around in moving to Levi’s Stadium – but you knew that. You also worked within a “unique” family dynamic there so I know you must be keenly aware of what you signed up for here. Plus, you spent some time with the Washington Caps before they found Alex Ovechkin, so you saw the Orioles demise up close before the Nationals ever existed in the DMV.

You were also part of the remnants of the post-Lebron craze in Miami so you know what it looks like after the party is over. Sports is tough sell down there where the girls are pretty and the beach eternally beckons. So is hockey, as you know, but I must say I was blown away by the brand of the Tampa Bay Lightning and #GoBoltsGo across the Everglades this spring in my travels.

And the Houston Texans have always had everything – a well-funded owner, fresh start, a built-in fan base, lots of money, people and mixed nationalities to market and sell stuff to and a great defense and stadium – but without a quarterback it’s been just another starving place waiting for the Astros or Rockets to come along and win. They might even finally have one in DeShaun Watson!

You run a sports franchise. You need stars. You need wins. You need someone and something to market beyond a cartoon bird, a beautiful stadium and a pricey afternoon or evening of lousy, fifth-place baseball.

I’ve watched it here with Cal Ripken and Ray Lewis. And Johnny Unitas and Bert Jones and Joe Flacco, and Eddie Murray and Ed Reed and Frank Robinson. Stars are stars for a reason. Stars create winning. Stars helps sell stuff. And then the spigot flows from there.

And when you lose, well…

You know.

Just look out that window in your new, spiffy office with that incredible sunset view on any night this summer when the gates are open for business and you’ll see what happens when a team has abandoned its fan base for a generation, is getting its ass kicked 38 miles to the south in an unwinnable war by a far more powerful and better-run baseball brand, and is in the middle of losing 100 games and giving away all of its players.

Welcome to Camden Yards, circa 2019!

You’re in charge of the biggest shitshow in town, John – the Baltimore Orioles!

A chance for a new start?

Or a career risk with plenty of warning signs and dark clouds?

Hey bro, you came from Miami! They’ve won two World Series in a climate conducive to baseball 365 days a year and still couldn’t figure out how to sell beisbol to my kinda people from Venezuela, Cuba and Latin America and a coast full of hibernating New Yorkers and New Englanders.

And you know why, right?

Oh, sure the stadium has been in the wrong place twice but the real reason no one on earth is a Marlins fan is because the owner was the biggest asshole in South Florida and every human being, every politician, every business owner, every fan – black, white and brown – knew it.

Even the manatees and alligators knew it.

He was a ruthless shark with zero regard for the fans or any emotional intelligence beyond the lies and trail of profit in bilking the community politicians, while raiding the tax kitty and sucking on the civic titty. It was a badge of honour for any South Florida sports fan to stay away from that shitty monstrosity out in the middle of nowhere anyone would ever want to be on a summer night in Miami.

I experienced it personally when I tried to swab a few people to save lives down there in 2015 on my MLB 30-30 #GiveASpit tour. The Marlins reputation as a terrible franchise preceded them and they managed to even be worse. Derek Jeter will be spending the next decade trying to find people who can love baseball in a blimp in South Florida. (But he’s got at least one guy in Baltimore who loved the painted girls in the pool at the Clevelander!)

Sure, laugh at them. You sold against them so you know they were a punchline on South Beach! And yet you probably have no idea how close Orioles fans came to having Jeffria Loria be our douchebag owner here in Baltimore. He finished a very close second place.

You can read the history of how your new boss beat out that guy for the kingdom of Baltimore Orioles baseball on a hot summer day in 1993 in The Peter Principles. 

All of your experiences in these mixed markets and various sports will serve you well now that you’ve made it to the dying, fourth American sports brand of baseball in a market that lacrosse has infiltrated as a primary sport like a bacteria on termites in the spring and summer calendar of affluent (and not so affluent) white people in the suburbs of your primary (and now pretty-much only) market.

This would be one of the great turnaround stories in modern times, as I pointed out to Louis and John in their #DearOrioles letter, if this franchise is playing meaningful baseball games in August and September anytime soon.

I would petition the mayor of Baltimore in 2028 to change the name of the Inner Harbor to “Loujon” if they pull off a Rocky Wirtz-style turnaround with the Orioles and we start having parades around here.

I’m pulling for you – even if I never get my legitimate press credential back, which I’ll get to – because what is good for the city is good for me. I’ve been waiting all of my adult life for the Baltimore Orioles to capture the imagination of the community. I’m no longer holding my breath – or words and truths – for a lot of reasons.

I like that you are a hill charger. I’ve liked every Canadian I’ve ever met. (Well, except for Denis Potvin. He still sucks!)

I, too, am a hill charger, a tower jumper and a wall climber. I am a dreamer. I have delusions of grandeur. You can ask, Peter Angelos!

I’ve been charging The Warehouse wall with facts and legitimate questions since it was erected. At some point it’ll fall like Berlin. But it can’t keep going the direction it’s going – older, emptier, poorer, worse, less attractive, more expensive, harder to access, easier to ignore – and survive long term in Baltimore.

You can’t reach for the ceiling if you don’t know where the floor is located. I can assure you that you are closer to the basement than the attic and gravity is winning. Losing on the field is going to be the least of your problems if you’re truly going to be “in charge” of the Baltimore Orioles.

Most people in every lonely cubicle in your new digs at The Warehouse will tell you I’m the village asshole ­and have been for 27 years – “the worst former media guy in Baltimore who still owns his own radio station, broadcasts all day and reaches 100,000 a week but nobody listens to him” – because I ask legitimate and fair questions and don’t like it when I’m lied to or ignored on behalf of the fans after three decades.

Mr. Angelos says I’m fake news.

He’s taken away my access to do what feeds my family over the last dozen years. His actions regarding the press and media – as well as his stance on foreign players and in the international market – have a lot in common with the guy who runs our country.

I can’t be controlled. So, therefore, I must be destroyed.

I’m not worthy of a media credential because I won’t lie for his franchise or associate my name with his deeds without

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