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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 24-23 loss to New Orleans

Posted on 23 October 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens falling to 4-3 in their 24-23 loss to New Orleans, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Jimmy Smith played poorly in his first start with Marlon Humphrey sidelined, but some criticism was over the top. Being suspended didn’t change the reality of him coming back from a torn Achilles, an injury that takes time for someone to return to previous form. Michael Thomas is also terrific.

2. Especially with the Saints down to their third-string left guard during Sunday’s game, you’d like to see the pass rush manage more than one sack and three quarterback hits. It’s very tough to beat a great offensive team without more disruption in the pocket or a game-changing turnover.

3. I’m all for trying to keep opponents guessing, but eight different Ravens running the ball at least once Sunday says plenty about the current state of a ground attack that ranks 31st in the NFL in yards per carry. The only team worse (Arizona) just fired its offensive coordinator.

4. Of the 16 times running backs carried the ball, 10 went for two or fewer yards and only one netted a first down. I’d be much more interested in upgrading the offensive line before the trade deadline, but exploring other running backs should be a consideration as well.

5. Both Drew Brees and Sean Payton talked about the 20-play opening drive setting the tone and allowing the Saints to jump ahead in time of possession despite not scoring. The Ravens defense surrendered only seven points through three quarters, but that long series took a toll later in the game.

6. Of course, that drive would have ended quickly had the special teams stopped a fake punt attempt after what looked like an initial three-and-out. I’m a big Jerry Rosburg guy, but there have been too many lapses with multiple special-teams units this season.

7. Coming off two quiet games, John Brown made seven catches for 134 yards — season highs — and a touchdown. Considering he caught all seven targets, why not go to him even more, especially in the first two fourth-quarter drives when he was thrown to just once for 17 yards?

8. Mark Andrews caught a touchdown Sunday, but tight ends have combined for 11 receptions for 84 yards over the last three games. Nick Boyle and Maxx Williams are helping offensive tackles in pass protection, but you want more when dressing four tight ends. Hayden Hurst needs to be more involved.

9. Lamar Jackson’s usage continues to be debated, but it was good seeing him pass in a third-down situation, something the Ravens must be willing to do if he’s going to play. His first NFL touchdown on a read-option run was a great example of how to properly use him.

10. I agreed with kicking the extra point, but there would have been at least an argument to go for the win if the Ravens had a running game. I wouldn’t have loved their chances in overtime after Brees had carved up the defense on three straight drives. Challenge traditional thinking.

11. The Ravens are 8-13 in games decided by a single possession since the start of 2016 and dropped to 0-2 this season. Common sense would tell you a playoff-hopeful team should be .500 or better in this department. Fourth quarters like Sunday’s have loomed large.

12. The debut of the purple-on-purple uniform — non-“Color Rush” edition — was the sixth different combination used by the Ravens since the start of the preseason, and they haven’t even worn their black alternates or the aforementioned purple tops with gold numbering yet. Watch out, Oregon.

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Ravens-Saints showdown capable of giving both sides “nightmares”

Posted on 17 October 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — A meeting between the NFL’s top scoring offense and best scoring defense feels like a heavyweight fight, but Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs didn’t offer the anticipated bravado.

Not when you’re facing a quarterback who just broke the career passing yardage record and is still going strong at age 39 in an offense averaging 36.0 points per game.

“They’re the kind of explosive offense that gives you nightmares,” said Suggs about Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. “It’s going to be a good, fun game. We get to play football against one of the premier quarterbacks, the premier offenses with explosive pieces.”

At the same time, Brees spent his bye week watching the Ravens defense collect a franchise-record 11 sacks in a 21-0 road shutout against Tennessee. Baltimore’s 12.8 points per game allowed this season looks like something out of 1978 rather than in 2018 when offense reigns supreme.

He’s faced them only four times, but Brees is fully aware the Ravens are the only team he’s never defeated in his 18-year career. Suggs — a rookie when Baltimore beat Brees for the first time when he was the quarterback of the San Diego Chargers in 2003 — tried to chalk up that past success to “luck” on Wednesday, but the future Hall of Fame quarterback has fallen prey to an abundance of defensive standouts from Ray Lewis and Ed Reed to Haloti Ngata and Elvis Dumervil over the years.

Now Brees will meet a deep and unpredictable defense that leads the league in sacks and has allowed only eight touchdowns in six games — none after halftime.

“They’re all over the place, and I think that’s just something we have to be aware of,” Brees said in a conference call with Baltimore media. “Making sure that we’re spot-on with our scheme and what we’re doing, making sure that the ball gets out on time, making sure we’re doing good things in the back end in regards to getting open. But yes, it’s a formidable defense. It’s a formidable pass rush.”

“All over the place” is an appropriate description as new defensive coordinator Wink Martindale has employed extensive depth and more pre- and in-snap flexibility to keep opposing offenses guessing as to what the Ravens are doing. Whether disguising coverage and blitzes or even using “amoeba” looks (see below) with upwards of seven or eight players at the line of scrimmage before the snap, the Ravens have confused quarterbacks, forcing them into mistakes or holding the ball too long as the pass rush gets home.


(Screen shot courtesy of NFL Game Pass)

Of course, the Ravens are unlikely to confuse the veteran Brees to the same degree they baffled Nathan Peterman, Case Keenum, or Marcus Mariota, but their style of play is already the blueprint for trying to slow down a quarterback who processes information quickly and makes plenty of pre-snap adjustments. The concern is Brees and Saints head coach Sean Payton have had an extra week to study the Baltimore defense, adding another layer to an already-intriguing chess match.

“If he knows what you’re doing or what you’re going to do, you’re going to have a long day,” said Ravens slot receiver Willie Snead, who spent the last three seasons with the Saints. “I think disguise is going to be huge with the [defense] because they do have a great offense. Drew Brees is one of the best. You guys know that.

“But I think the way you get him off his game is you have to bring pressure. You have to mix it up, and you have to make sure that he doesn’t know what you’re doing. I think that’s the biggest thing.”

Knowing you have to pressure Brees and doing it are two different things as he’s been sacked just eight times in five games this season and has been dropped just 28 times since the start of 2017. The New Orleans offensive line ranks fifth in Pro Football Focus’ most recent rankings with offensive tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk grading particularly well.

The challenge of pressuring Brees is compounded by how quickly he gets rid of the football, another obstacle for rushers trying to come off the edge. According to Next Gen Stats, Brees’ average time to throw of 2.52 seconds from snap to release is tied for second fastest in the league and is 0.04 seconds quicker than Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton, whose quick throws frustrated the Ravens in a Week 2 loss in which they didn’t record a single sack.

Those variables are why it’s critical for the inside pass rush to get Brees off his spot and keep him out of rhythm. That effort will be led by the surging Za’Darius Smith, who is coming off a career-best three-sack performance against the Titans. Smith estimated Wednesday that the coverage in the Ravens secondary just needs to give the front “three to four seconds” to get after Brees.

Easier said than done, but the Ravens don’t have to try to be something they’re not, which is good news when playing such an explosive offense. Ultimately, they’re hoping to give Brees some nightmares of his own while continuing their undefeated streak against one of the best quarterbacks of all time.

“We’ve got to do our best to not let him know what we’re in before the snap because we’re going to be dead if he does know,” safety Eric Weddle said. “It’s a fun challenge. The great ones always bring out the best in you, and they can bring out the worst in you too. If you make a mistake, it’s a touchdown. That’s the pressure you like.”

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Historic outing puts Ravens in good position for defining stretch

Posted on 15 October 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Tennessee Titans waved the white flag early in their shutout loss to the Ravens on Sunday.

Perhaps it wasn’t as pronounced as when Chris McAlister claimed Eddie George “folded like a baby” after taking a big hit from Ray Lewis in an old AFC Central rivalry game that was once every bit as intense and nasty as what Baltimore-Pittsburgh would become, but the Titans running the ball on a third-and-10 play from their own 36 late in the second quarter said all you needed to know after the Ravens had already collected six sacks in the first half.

The score was just 14-0, but Tennessee wasn’t going to threaten the rest of the way, crossing midfield only once after intermission — to the Baltimore 49 — in a 21-0 final that included a franchise-record 11 sacks. Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota never had a chance as he finished with fewer completions than the number of times he was sacked.

Yes, it was a historic single-game defensive performance by the Ravens, a team that’s no stranger to such feats over the last two decades. But playing defense in today’s offense-crazy NFL is a different animal than it was six or seven years ago, let alone trying to make modern-day comparisons to the gold standard that is the 2000 Ravens. For some context, only four teams in that Super Bowl XXXV season averaged 25 points per game whereas nearly half the league is doing that so far in 2018.

That’s not to say this year’s Ravens after just six games are anywhere close to being deserving of comparisons to that historic group or another handful of great Baltimore defenses, but the eye-popping numbers are tough to ignore. Consider that Sunday’s marquee showdown between New England and Kansas City featured a total of 83 points scored, six more than the Ravens have allowed all season. Early opponents Tennessee, Cleveland, Denver, and Buffalo may not be keeping defensive coordinators up at night, but the Ravens are surrendering only 12.8 points per game in a league in which only six other teams are allowing under 20 points per contest. Chicago is the only other team to surrender fewer than 100 points on the season, and the Bears have allowed 96 — in five games.

Baltimore still hasn’t surrendered a second-half touchdown despite playing four of its first six on the road, including the last three in a row. The Ravens defense has had only one truly bad half of football when it gave up 28 points to Cincinnati in a Thursday road game, which is always a difficult proposition.

Making the aforementioned numbers even more amazing is the fact that Wink Martindale’s defense has forced only six turnovers so far, meaning the Ravens have shut down opponents in a more “straight-up” fashion. Sunday was the 14th shutout in franchise history and the first not to feature a single takeaway, meaning there was never the need for a fumble recovery in the red zone or an end-zone interception as is usually the case to preserve a goose egg.

That will need to change with the real fun about to begin.

The Ravens will play four of their next five games at M&T Bank Stadium, but their next four opponents — New Orleans, at Carolina, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati — all rank in the top 15 in scoring offense with the Saints, Steelers, and Bengals each in the top seven. Week 7 features the No. 1 scoring offense against the top scoring defense in the league as future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees and Super Bowl-winning coach Sean Payton have had an extra week to prepare for Martindale’s creative schemes.

The good news is the defense shouldn’t need to do it alone as the offense is much improved from recent years and ranks in the top 12 in most major categories. You can’t expect to entirely shut down a team like the Saints, of course, but what’s made the Ravens’ 4-2 start so encouraging is how much more balanced the performances have been. It will certainly mark the biggest test of the season to date.

John Harbaugh’s team finished its road-heavy start to the season on a high note Sunday with one of the greatest single-game defensive performances in team history. Victories in two of the next three games — a challenging but reasonable goal for a legitimate playoff team — would put the Ravens at 6-3 entering their bye. They’ve entered their bye week with a losing record in each of the last three seasons, ultimately leaving too little margin for error down the stretch each time. December trips to Atlanta, Kansas City, and the Los Angeles Chargers will be easier to navigate if the Ravens are contending for a first-round bye rather than needing to be virtually perfect just to sneak into the tournament.

The Ravens have looked like a playoff team with an elite — and throwback — defense, an above-average offense, and an ability to hold their own on the road to give them their best start since 2014.

Now we’ll find out just how great this defense is and how truly serious the Ravens are as contenders.

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