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New chapter upon us in old Ravens-Steelers rivalry

Posted on 04 October 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Lamar Jackson wasn’t even born yet when the Ravens played the Pittsburgh Steelers for the first time, reminding how long this rivalry has now existed.

It transformed from early Pittsburgh dominance to hostile nastiness to begrudging respect in quite possibly the NFL’s best rivalry over the last two decades. The annual meetings have become downright civil compared to the days of Ray Lewis, Chris McAlister, Hines Ward, Joey Porter, and so many others exchanging barbs off the field and violent hits on it.

If we’re being honest, the rivalry has aged in recent years with the 2016 Christmas Day game — a painful memory for Baltimore — being the most notable encounter. That’s not to say the games are any less competitive — 11 of the last 16 overall meetings have been decided by one score — but this year marks the first time since 2006 that neither Baltimore-Pittsburgh affair was scheduled for prime time if we’re including that nationally-televised Christmas meeting three years ago. Sunday’s encounter is the first time since 2013 these teams will meet in Pittsburgh for a run-of-the-mill afternoon game.

This AFC North rivalry inevitably cooled with the retirements of legends such as Lewis, Ward, Ed Reed, and Troy Polamalu, but this offseason brought the departures of Terrell Suggs, Joe Flacco, Antonio Brown, and Le’Veon Bell from their respective teams. Sunday will mark the first Ravens-Steelers game not including any of Suggs, Flacco, or Ben Roethlisberger — who’s out for the year with an elbow injury — since the final game of the 2002 season when Jeff Blake and Tommy Maddox were the quarterbacks and Todd Heap and Amos Zereoue were the standout performers of the day.

Only nine current Ravens were with the organization the last time these teams met in the playoffs five years ago, but one of them — outside linebacker Pernell McPhee in his second stint with Baltimore — offered what felt like a relic this week compared to the tame, respect-filled talk we’ve heard from both sides in recent years.

“We hate each other. I know for sure we hate them. We hate them,” said McPhee, who last played in a Ravens-Steelers game in the 2014 playoffs. “We respect them as men, but we really hate them.

“That’s just how it is. That’s the blood between the teams. It’s like God versus the Devil.”

Those words brought back plenty of fond memories, but the rivalry is now in need of a spark and a new chapter as much as each team could use a win with the Steelers trying to regroup from an 0-3 start and the Ravens aiming to snap their two-game losing streak. We’ve made mention of the “Bizarro” Ravens with a top-shelf offense and a bottom-10 defense so far, but the once-elite Steelers offense is suddenly counting on second-year quarterback Mason Rudolph to lead a group short on play-making ability with Bell now a New York Jet and Brown somewhere in his own little world.

This is when we come back to Jackson, who played a combined 22 snaps as a rookie in last season’s split against the Steelers. He’s rapidly become the face of the franchise since the last time Baltimore played Pittsburgh last November, Flacco’s final start as a Raven. Jackson’s comments on the rivalry and his first start at Heinz Field this week were both refreshing and a reminder of how much things have changed with the influx of youth on both sides.

“They play that little song (“Renegade”), and they wave their little flags and stuff with the little towels around,” Jackson said. “It was pretty dope. I enjoyed it. I did, I really did.”

Off to a terrific start to 2019 with 10 touchdown passes, a 109.4 passer rating, and a combined 1,348 yards through the air and on the ground, Jackson has his first real chance to make his mark against the Steelers after playing little more than a cameo role last season. With their defense reeling after giving up 73 points and 1,033 yards over the last two games, the Ravens need their 22-year-old quarterback to lead the way and give the Steelers fits for the first of what they hope will be many times in the coming years.

There’s no better candidate on either side to become the next star in Ravens-Steelers lore. Baltimore has the overwhelming advantage at the most important position on the field, but we’ve seen the likes of Charlie Batch and Ryan Mallett win games against Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks in this rivalry.

Nothing is guaranteed and you throw out the numbers for this one, but the Ravens need a win to get that “throw-up taste” out of their mouths from last week as McPhee described it. They can drop the Steelers to 1-4 and strengthen the notion of the AFC North being a two-team race with Cleveland. However, a Pittsburgh win gives Mike Tomlin’s team even more life and leaves us wondering if the Ravens are all that good at all.

Even if the rivalry isn’t what it used to be — at least for now — it’s time for Jackson and so many others stepping into larger roles on both sides of the ball to find out what Ravens-Steelers is all about.

“They’re becoming Ravens,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “One of the things that was said in the meeting [Wednesday] is, ‘You’re not a Raven until you beat the Steelers.’ Well, we have some young guys that still need to beat the Steelers.”

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Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Demarcus Robinson (11) makes a one-handed touchdown catch in front of Baltimore Ravens cornerback Brandon Carr (24) during the first half of an NFL football game in Kansas City, Mo., Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

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Loss in Kansas City reflects growing pains for revamped Ravens defense

Posted on 23 September 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Some growing pains were always likely for the Ravens defense, especially when playing the NFL’s MVP and best offense from a year ago in Week 3.

It was easy to be dismissive of the departure of several key veterans in the offseason, citing the bloated contracts they received with their new teams and a notion that they’re overrated or past their prime. Some even had the gall to suggest the exits of mainstays such as C.J. Mosley, Terrell Suggs, and Eric Weddle would be addition by subtraction for a faster, younger defense in 2019.

That certainly wasn’t the case Sunday when the Ravens defense surrendered more than 500 yards in a 33-28 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Last December’s 27-24 overtime loss was far from perfect, but Baltimore allowed 61 fewer yards on 19 more plays in that contest that also included Pro Bowl wide receiver Tyreek Hill and starting left tackle Eric Fisher, who both sat out with injuries Sunday. The Chiefs registered four plays of more than 35 yards compared to just one last year — Patrick Mahomes’ miracle 49-yard completion to Hill on fourth-and-9 to set up the tying score late in the fourth quarter.

No, the Ravens defense wasn’t good enough Sunday — few are against Mahomes and Kansas City — but that doesn’t mean head coach John Harbaugh or anyone else should be panicking. There wasn’t a more difficult game on the schedule going into the 2019 season, but the Ravens still fell by just five points despite neither side of the ball performing at its best. There’s no shame in a revamped defense being unable to match last year’s showing or Lamar Jackson and a young offense not quite being ready for a full-blown shootout in the season’s third game.

“Can we play better? We will play better, and we’ll learn a lot from that experience,” Harbaugh said. “That team is no better than us, but they played better than us. Let’s get better. Let’s play better. Let’s coach better. Let’s get ourselves to the point where we can go into a game like that and win.

“We weren’t good enough on Sunday based on the way we played. But we will be because these guys aren’t backing down.”

There are issues to correct, however.

The coverage breakdowns that surfaced in Week 2 when Arizona rookie Kyler Murray threw for 349 yards continued against Mahomes, who was much more adept at making the Ravens pay for their mistakes. Cornerback Jimmy Smith remains sidelined with a sprained MCL in his right knee while nickel corner Tavon Young was lost for the year in August, but the secondary can’t chalk up all hiccups to those absences — as significant as they might be.

Six-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas presented an upgrade from the aging Weddle’s individual play, but the latter was the quarterback of the defense last year, diagnosing opponents’ plays and serving as a traffic cop for Wink Martindale’s deceptive schemes. That’s not to suggest Thomas, Tony Jefferson, or anyone else is incapable of filling that role, but it’s a different dynamic needing time to gel like the Ravens defense did down the stretch in 2018 after a shaky middle portion of the season.

Baltimore wasn’t tested by a woeful Miami offense in the opener and played well enough in the red zone and on third down to overcome coverage mistakes against the Cardinals, but it was the wrong time to be playing the Chiefs’ mighty offense, evident by Mahomes’ 83-yard touchdown strike to a wide-open Mecole Hardman on a drive that began on Kansas City’s own 4 in the second quarter.

“You never know the exact route you’re going to get, but there are principles involved in those coverages,” said Harbaugh, who added that the coaching staff must better prepare players for every situation. “We’ve had breakdowns two weeks in a row in different coverages. And that’s not good. That’s what costs you big gains when you’re playing good teams who are explosive as [the Chiefs] are and can make those plays. We just can’t have it. Our guys know it.”

The problems extend beyond the secondary as Ravens inside linebackers have struggled to hang with tight ends and running backs more frequently than the too harshly criticized Mosley would in coverage in the past. After platooning effectively last season, Patrick Onwuasor and Kenny Young have made some splash plays in expanded roles, but the Ravens have missed the down-to-down consistency and aptitude of the four-time Pro Bowl inside linebacker. Some overpursuit and difficulty shedding blocks also contributed to Kansas City averaging 5.4 yards per carry.

None of this is to suggest Mosley was worth the $17 million per year the New York Jets are paying him, but Sunday was a reminder why the Ravens were still trying to re-sign him before the bidding became too lucrative in the end. Replacing him is easier said than done — even if he wasn’t Ray Lewis.

“We have not been great in man coverage all the time,” said Harbaugh of his inside linebackers. “We’ve had some really good moments, and then we’ve had some not good moments. We had one situation where it was a half-roll pass in a certain zone coverage that we didn’t get back to the spot where we want to be, and they hit [Travis] Kelce over the middle one time. It’s different issues. We can be better there.”

Outside linebacker was discussed at great length throughout the spring and summer, but the same questions persist three weeks into the season. The Ravens have received quality play from starters Matthew Judon and Pernell McPhee, but Harbaugh called out 2017 draft picks Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams and their need to be better as the pair has combined for five tackles, zero sacks, and one quarterback hit in 125 combined snaps this season.

Harbaugh was more forgiving of rookie Jaylon Ferguson in his NFL debut, but setting the edge against the run — an underrated part of Suggs’ game even late in his career — has been problematic for the young outside linebackers, another reason why Martindale has leaned so heavily on Judon and McPhee. Against the Chiefs, Judon played 58 of 68 defensive snaps while McPhee took 56. More effective as a situational pass rusher on a limited pitch count throughout his career, McPhee has already played 118 snaps, more than halfway to his total of 204 with Washington last year.

Williams, Bowser, and Ferguson aren’t just going to be handed snaps, however.

“Those reps are definitely up for grabs. We’ll see who takes them,” Harbaugh said. “In my mind, those young guys, the reps are there. We need to give our older guys a break. They can’t be playing all those snaps all year.

“We want to play fast defense. We want to be rested and healthy. But none of those guys have stepped up in my mind and taken the reps yet. That’s disappointing, so we’ll see who’s the man for the job. The ball is in their court.”

The good news is most of the aforementioned players are young and capable of improving as the year progresses. The return of a healthy Smith in a few weeks should help calm the secondary at the very least while the Ravens search for more consistency and production at inside and outside linebacker.

Again, the Chiefs averaged just over 35 points per game last season. Concerns about the Ravens defense aren’t as severe as Sunday’s loss suggested just like the group wasn’t as good as the season-opening win over woeful Miami indicated. The truth lies in between with the Ravens having much work to do to become a top-flight defense rather than the ordinary group that experienced too many breakdowns Sunday.

There’s still plenty of room and time to grow.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 2 win over Arizona

Posted on 17 September 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens starting 2-0 for the third time in four years after a 23-17 win over Arizona, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Terrell Suggs’ return to Baltimore was uneventful as he finished with three tackles. He was paid handsomely to return to play in his home state, but I couldn’t help but wonder if witnessing the dramatic improvement from Lamar Jackson firsthand made him regret that decision a little more.

2. The zone coverage breakdowns were concerning — especially with Kansas City up next — but the situational defense was exactly what you want to see. The Cardinals were 3-for-12 on third and fourth downs and 1-for-4 inside the red zone. That’s how you survive giving up 6.5 yards per play.

3. We noted last week that Jackson didn’t throw much outside the numbers against Miami, but that wasn’t the case in Week 2 as he completed passes all over the field (see below), including his beautiful 41-yard completion to seal the six-point win. This is really getting fun.

4. Aside from a Kyler Murray 31-yard pass to KeeSean Johnson in the second quarter, Brandon Carr was stellar with a team-high seven tackles, the second sack of his career, and a pass breakup. Having the versatility to play the nickel is another reminder how valuable his 2017 signing was.

5. The only player to have more receiving yards than Marquise Brown in his first two NFL games was Anquan Boldin in 2003. So much for tempering expectations for a 22-year-old who missed the entire spring and a large portion of summer practice reps. He’s making it look easy.

6. As unexpected as Brown’s immediate success might be, Mark Andrews dominating over the first two games isn’t surprising. He’s caught 16 of the 17 passes on which he’s been targeted so far. Todd Heap’s single-season record of 855 receiving yards by a tight end is in real jeopardy.

7. Sacks are just part of the equation when evaluating a pass rusher, but Matthew Judon has collected one in each of the first two games. He didn’t hit the two-sack mark until Week 9 last season. His contract year is certainly off to a strong start.

8. Pernell McPhee split a sack with Patrick Ricard and played 40 snaps. That workload is more than you’d like to give the 30-year-old with an injury history, but McPhee is the only one offering much pressure when lining up inside.

9. The motion, pre-snap movement, and deception the Ravens are using has to be dizzying for opposing defenses. Jackson’s touchdown to Hayden Hurst came after the tight end flipped to the right side, chipped an edge rusher, went to the ground, and jumped up to catch an easy 1-yard score.

10. Unsuccessfully going for a fourth-and-3 from the Arizona 43 on the second drive drew some criticism, but it’s the aggressiveness we’ve come to expect from John Harbaugh. Give me the coach trying to win as opposed to playing not to lose like kicking three field goals inside the 5.

11. Ben Roethlisberger is out for the year, winless Cincinnati was throttled in its home opener, and Baker Mayfield and Cleveland hardly looked like a well-oiled machine against the injury-ravaged Jets after being embarrassed by 30 points at home in Week 1. The AFC North is Baltimore’s division to lose.

12. Change was a theme at the stadium with the debut of new public address announcer Greg Davis and Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” replacing U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” for player introductions. My favorite change, however, was the return of the Ravens shield as the midfield logo.

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Ravens-Cardinals: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 15 September 2019 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Old meets new as Terrell Suggs returns to M&T Bank Stadium as a member of the Arizona Cardinals against a young Ravens team with a new face of the franchise.

After a record-setting performance in the 59-10 win over Miami to open the 2019 season, the Baltimore offense will be introduced with 22-year-old quarterback Lamar Jackson scheduled to be the last one out of the tunnel. Against the Dolphins, Jackson tied a team record with five touchdown passes and recorded the only perfect passer rating in Ravens history, a historic Week 1 performance that earned him AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors.

Suggs embraced former Raven and close friend Haloti Ngata with a big hug on the sideline during warmups, but he didn’t interact with any Ravens coaches or players on the field. The movie buff posted a video on Instagram Saturday quoting “The Dark Knight” character Harvey Dent: “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

As expected, tight end Mark Andrews (foot), wide receiver Marquise Brown (hip), and cornerback Marlon Humphrey (back) are all active despite missing practice time this week and being listed as questionable on the final injury report. With Jimmy Smith out with a right knee injury, the Ravens elevated Maurice Canady to the 53-man roster Saturday to add more depth at cornerback against rookie quarterback Kyler Murray and a Cardinals offense that used four-wide sets more than the rest of the NFL combined in Week 1.

Smith took the place of recently-waived offensive tackle Greg Senat, but the remaining six players on the inactive list were unchanged from Week 1 with third-round outside linebacker Jaylon Ferguson and fourth-round guard Ben Powers both deactivated for the second straight week.

Arizona received a scare Sunday morning with starting left guard Justin Pugh coming down with an illness, but the seventh-year veteran is active.

Former Ravens wide receiver Michael Crabtree is active and will make his Cardinals debut. Former Ravens tight end Maxx Williams is also now with Arizona and caught up with several teammates prior to warmups.

Sunday’s referee is Ronald Torbert.

According to Weather.com, the Sunday forecast in Baltimore calls for mostly skies and temperatures reaching the mid-80s with calm winds five to 10 miles per hour.

The Ravens are wearing white jerseys and purple pants for their home opener while Arizona dons red jerseys and white pants.

Sunday marks the seventh time the Ravens and Cardinals have met in the regular season with Baltimore holding a 4-2 advantage in the all-time regular-season series. The Ravens are 2-1 against Arizona at home with the only defeat coming at Memorial Stadium in 1997.

Below are Sunday’s inactives:

BALTIMORE
QB Trace McSorley
WR Jaleel Scott
ILB Otaro Alaka
CB Jimmy Smith
OLB Jaylon Ferguson
G Ben Powers
DT Daylon Mack

ARIZONA
OL Lamont Gaillard
OL Joshua Miles
OL Jeremy Vujnovich
OL Brett Toth
WR Andy Isabella
DL Jonathan Bullard
DL Michael Dogbe

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Ravens-Cardinals: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 14 September 2019 by Luke Jones

A pair of 22-year-old starting quarterbacks may not produce an instant classic Sunday, but it’s the kind of matchup that makes you ponder an exciting future as the Ravens host Arizona.

Lamar Jackson took a dramatic leap forward with his five-touchdown performance in the season opener while Kyler Murray showed his promise late as the Cardinals rallied to force a Week 1 tie with Detroit last week. Of course, Jackson has a head start in his development after helping lead the Ravens to their first AFC North title since 2012 last season, and one could argue his early success was a factor leading teams to view Murray differently as he was taken first overall by the Cardinals in April.

That story aside, Baltimore aims to begin 2-0 for the third time in the last four seasons before a challenging trip to Kansas City next week.

It’s time to go on the record as the Cardinals play the Ravens for the seventh time in their history with Baltimore leading the all-time regular-season series 4-2. Arizona won the most recent meeting in 2015, but the Ravens are 2-1 against the Cardinals in Baltimore with the only loss coming at Memorial Stadium back in 1997.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Lamar Jackson will rush for 50 yards and throw touchdowns to Mark Andrews and Willie Snead. Jackson made his harshest critics look foolish with a record-setting performance in Week 1, but you hope expectations haven’t swung too far in the opposite direction as some are already touting him as an MVP candidate. I’m not buying his three rushing attempts becoming the new norm, especially with teams seeing you can’t sell out to take his legs away without consequences through the air. Arizona gave up a combined 13 catches for 235 yards and two touchdowns to Detroit slot receiver Danny Amendola and tight end T.J. Hockenson last week. That bodes well for Snead and Andrews.

2. Terrell Suggs will register a strip-sack in his return to Baltimore. Questions about how the 36-year-old former Raven will hold up over a full campaign are more than fair based on the last few seasons, but Suggs was very active in his Cardinals debut with two sacks, one of them resulting in a fumble. Lost in Jackson’s Week 1 passing brilliance was that he didn’t fumble in a game he started for the first time in his career, an encouraging development. Offensive tackles Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr. will have their hands full against Suggs and two-time Pro Bowl edge rusher Chandler Jones, and Suggs will have active hands knowing Jackson’s problems with ball security last year.

3. Baltimore will bat three passes at the line of scrimmage, one leading to an interception. Shorter quarterbacks are capable of NFL success, but the 5-foot-10 Murray had four passes batted down at the line of scrimmage last week, which did little to quell concerns about his stature. The rookie didn’t push the ball down the field a ton, but he threw it in every direction, making it critical for Baltimore pass rushers to get their hands up in passing lanes. Pernell McPhee and Chris Wormley have the potential to be big factors as inside rushers since the Ravens must be disciplined on the edge against a mobile quarterback who throws on the run effectively.

4. David Johnson will pick up 110 total yards and a touchdown in Arizona’s four-wide offense. With no disrespect meant toward Larry Fitzgerald, the rest of the Cardinals wide receivers don’t scare you from a matchup standpoint. However, Kliff Kingsbury used four wide receivers on two-thirds of Arizona’s plays in Week 1, which could open things for Johnson as a receiver down the seam. It’ll be fascinating to see how Wink Martindale attacks a unique offense with a group of cornerbacks at less than full strength, but his inside linebackers will be tested more this week against Johnson, who will try to slip out of the backfield to try to neutralize the pass rush against a rookie quarterback.

5. The Ravens will not dominate to the degree they did in Miami, but the outcome won’t be in doubt in a 31-14 win. I have a tough time seeing a path to victory for the Cardinals that doesn’t include multiple Baltimore turnovers or a couple injuries at key positions, but Murray’s performance over the final 25 minutes last week reiterates that the Ravens shouldn’t take this team lightly as the rookie will show his potential on a couple scoring drives. We’ll see a less spectacular but more balanced performance from Jackson, who will make plays with his arm and his legs to the delight of an energetic home crowd. Arizona will be more careful in pass coverage than the Dolphins were, but that will open up more room for Mark Ingram and the Baltimore rushing attack to control the tempo and the clock. The Ravens know they need a 2-0 start with the schedule toughening up considerably beginning next week, and John Harbaugh’s team will take care of business in comfortable fashion.

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Former Raven Suggs returns to place most assumed he’d never leave

Posted on 13 September 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Marshal Yanda said seeing his name on the scouting report was “pretty funny.”

Rookie Jaylon Ferguson mimicked him in practices this week wearing a new No. 56 unfamiliar to Baltimore while Marlon Humphrey noted it would be strange seeing him in Arizona Cardinals red.

When Terrell Suggs arrives at M&T Bank Stadium Sunday morning, he’ll walk into the visiting locker room, a place he never entered in 16 years with the Ravens. As the seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker who played more regular-season games than any other Raven noted, “It will be kind of weird for all of us.”

“When the schedule came out, I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to downplay it as just another game.’ But we all know that’d be bulls–t,” Suggs said on a conference call with Baltimore reporters this week. “It’s kind of a unique situation, isn’t it? It’s kind of weird. Everybody is just kind of anxious to see what it’s going to be like.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Unlike Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed’s free-agent departure in 2013 when the organization showed only tepid interest compared to the more lucrative three-year, $15 million contract he signed with Houston in the weeks following Super Bowl XLVII, the Ravens wanted Suggs to return for a 17th season, which would have matched Hall of Fame inside linebacker Ray Lewis for the longest tenure in franchise history. The 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year may not be the dominant and feared player he once was, but he’d still be lining up as the Ravens’ starting rush linebacker had he stayed put.

Of course, the business side of the game has a way of complicating matters as contract talks stalled leading up to free agency and the Cardinals offered Suggs $7 million guaranteed for the 2019 season. The Ravens came “close” to matching that offer in owner Steve Bisciotti’s words, but the thought of playing in Arizona — where he attended high school and college — and seeing so many other veterans exit aided in the 36-year-old’s decision to go home.

“There wasn’t really a moment,” said Suggs about signing with the Cardinals. “They (the Ravens) essentially made a last push. They did. I just felt it was time. It was time.”

Coming off Sunday’s 59-10 win in which Lamar Jackson tied a franchise record with five touchdown passes and produced the only perfect passer rating in team history, the Ravens know the future is now. Jackson is the new face of the franchise while Suggs saw his former Super Bowl-winning quarterback traded in the offseason and his two legendary former teammates of a decade — Lewis and Reed — officially enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame these last two summers. Those factors are more than enough to make anyone question his football mortality.

After spending years as the last man standing from the old defensive guard that included Lewis, Reed, and the recently-retired Haloti Ngata, Suggs could see the defense getting younger down the stretch last year. And though legitimate questions remain about an inexperienced pass rush that could still use him this season, Suggs apparently felt it was best to move on, a sentiment he shared with former teammates such as inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor.

“When he left, he texted me and said, ‘It’s time for you guys to start your own legacy and start the new brand of Raven football and just continue to be what the Ravens are all about,'” Onwuasor said.

His presence is still felt in the building as he stays in touch with teammates and is still mentioned in meeting rooms with his reputation as a brilliant student of the game. More than a few players laughed this week when asked to share stories about Suggs, often reluctant to share their colorful nature. Viewed as the talented class clown early in his career, the 2003 first-round pick from Arizona State grew into a leadership role over time while maintaining his boisterous demeanor, whether it was singing loudly on his way out to the practice, taking Bisciotti’s golf cart for a joyride, or wearing a gladiator mask during pre-game introductions.

Much like Suggs didn’t become a carbon copy of Lewis following his post-Super Bowl XLVII retirement, the Ravens haven’t replaced his defensive leadership with a single person this year, instead trusting a group of incumbents and veteran newcomers Earl Thomas and Pernell McPhee to help lead in their own ways. It’s never the same when an iconic player departs, but that’s a testament to the individual rather than a slight to anyone else.

“His name still comes up,” said Ferguson, who broke Suggs’ NCAA record for career sacks and was drafted this spring as part of the attempt to replace him. “He’s an awesome pass rusher. He’s one of the best pass rushers in history.

“His name has got no choice but to come up.”

Suggs will be more than just a name Sunday as he tries to help the Cardinals defense slow Jackson and a talented, young offense that surprised everyone last week. He and two-time Pro Bowl edge rusher Chandler Jones will try to get past Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr., two offensive tackles Suggs has faced plenty in a practice setting.

Regardless of how much he has left in his 17th NFL season — he registered just 1 1/2 sacks after Week 7 last year — Suggs showed plenty of juice last week with two sacks and a forced fumble in his Arizona debut. The thought of playing his final game in Baltimore has undoubtedly crossed his mind in a way it didn’t during the playoff loss in January when everyone assumed he’d be back.

Being the movie buff and screenwriter he is off the field, Suggs having a big returning performance has to be part of his script even as he said, “You kind of have to let it write itself.”

There’s a job to do on both sides, but Sunday is sure to be entertaining, weird, and emotional after Suggs’ abrupt departure in March.

“I couldn’t help myself; I watched him play last week on tape,” said defensive coordinator Wink Martindale, who coached Suggs for seven seasons and still beams over his accomplishments. “He hasn’t lost a step. It’s going to be a lot of fun.

“But I think it’s going to be harder for him.”

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As Marquise Brown shines, fellow Ravens rookie waiting his turn

Posted on 12 September 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — As Terrell Suggs makes his return to Baltimore on Sunday, the Ravens rookie who broke his NCAA career sacks record has been tasked with mimicking him in practices this week.

Third-round outside linebacker Jaylon Ferguson was a healthy scratch for the season-opening win in Miami, but he’s embracing his current scout-team role playing the former Ravens great who collected two sacks and a forced fumble in his Arizona debut last Sunday. The 23-year-old Ferguson views it as a learning experience as he tries to expand his bull-rushing arsenal and crack the game-day rotation.

“It’s fun. He’s got a different way of playing than me,” the Louisiana Tech product said. “I’m more of a bang-bang player. I know he’s getting older in age, so he can’t really bang like that no more. Playing like him for a day is fun. I hope I give the offense a good look. A lot of the guys on the team already know him, so they know what to expect.”

Ferguson’s rookie season hasn’t begun how he hoped as he’s behind starters Matthew Judon and Pernell McPhee and backups Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams on the depth chart. That standing coupled with the lack of a role on special teams left him on the seven-player inactive list against the Dolphins.

A concussion kept Ferguson out of the third preseason game against Philadelphia last month, but he finished with three tackles (two for a loss), two quarterback hits, and a deflected pass in the preseason with most of his playing time coming in the third and fourth quarters. Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale went out of his way to compliment Ferguson’s recent improvement last week, but that didn’t lead to a game-day activation for the opener as the Ravens went with four edge rushers.

Martindale quipped Thursday he wishes all defensive players could be active every week, but he reiterated the 6-foot-5, 270-pound outside linebacker remains on an upward trajectory.

“I believe he is. I really do,” Martindale said. “I’m really excited about Jaylon Ferguson.”

Ferguson isn’t the first Baltimore edge rusher to struggle to find his game-day footing early in his NFL career. Nagging injuries and the lack of a special-teams role kept Williams inactive for 17 games over his first two seasons, and 2009 second-round pick and eventual Super Bowl XLVII champion Paul Kruger was active for just 20 of his first 32 regular-season games before collecting 14 1/2 sacks over his final two seasons with the Ravens and signing a $40 million contract with Cleveland in 2013.

After collecting 45 sacks over his collegiate career, Ferguson said he continues to learn his craft from veterans like Judon and McPhee to be ready when his number is finally called.

“I’m just going to keep on working, keep on doing what I’m doing,” Ferguson said. “I feel like I’m working hard. There’s always room to improve. For right now, I’m just doing what I can to help the offense out giving them a look. Then, when it’s my turn up, do what I have to do to stay on the field.”

Marquise Brown still not at “full speed”

Despite a sensational debut in which he scored long touchdowns on each of his first two NFL catches, first-round wide receiver Marquise Brown says his legs weren’t firing on all cylinders in Miami.

“I wasn’t back to full speed,” Brown said. “I was talking to people telling them I didn’t know if it was the heat or something, but I wasn’t really feeling it. But I was running pretty good.”

The 5-foot-9, 170-pound receiver may have sprinted past the Miami defense with ease, but NFL Next Gen Stats suggest there could be something to the speedster’s self-critique. On his 83-yard touchdown, Brown topped out at 20.33 miles per hour, which ranked as the 14th-fastest ball carry of Week 1. For context, cornerback Marlon Humphrey said in July that Brown was clocked at over 21 miles per hour when he was still working his surgically-repaired foot back to full strength, a scary thought for opposing defenses.

Even if not quite back to full speed just yet, Brown is rapidly earning respect from his teammates after inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor jokingly told the rookie he hadn’t yet earned his full nickname when he took part in his first full practice in August, instead calling him “Holly.”

“They call me ‘Hollywood’ now,” said Brown as he laughed.

Thursday’s injury report

Cornerback Marlon Humphrey returned to practice a day after resting a back issue, easing any small concern about his availability for Sunday.

Brown remained a limited participant with a sore hip, but running back Mark Ingram (shoulder) and wide receiver Chris Moore (illness) were upgraded to full participation Thursday.

Below is the full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: CB Jimmy Smith (knee)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: WR Marquise Brown (hip), CB Marlon Humphrey (back)
FULL PARTICIPATION: LB Tyus Bowser (groin), CB Brandon Carr (non-injury), RB Mark Ingram (shoulder), WR Chris Moore (illness)

ARIZONA
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: DE Jonathan Bullard (hamstring), OL Lamont Gaillard (knee)
FULL PARTICIPATION: TE Charles Clay (non-injury), WR Larry Fitzgerald (non-injury), LB Haason Reddick (knee), LB Ezekiel Turner (hand)

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Twelve Ravens thoughts ahead of Thursday’s preseason opener

Posted on 06 August 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens preparing for Thursday’s preseason opener against Jacksonville, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Yes, it’s still just practice, but Lamar Jackson checked another box with two steady-to-strong showings against a talented Jacksonville defense. He isn’t suddenly a Marino-Vick hybrid, but he’s making good and on-time decisions with better accuracy. Within the reasonable range of expectations, the Ravens have to be pleased — and excited.

2. Jackson presents a preseason catch-22 John Harbaugh has rarely faced. The 22-year-old with eight career starts will surely benefit from game reps, but how much potential injury risk are you willing to take? I certainly expect him to play more than the 31 snaps Joe Flacco took all last preseason.

3. The timing of the Alex Lewis trade was a little surprising considering the current left guard picture, but his decision to handle his own shoulder rehab made it apparent the sides weren’t on the same page. It’s good news for Greg Senat and Patrick Mekari, two bubble linemen to watch.

4. Asked if the clock’s ticking on Tim Williams and Tyus Bowser, defensive line coach Joe Cullen said, “The clock has ticked, and it’s ready to explode.” Both flashed more this past week, but these preseason games are massive for them and the other outside linebackers not named Matthew Judon.

5. All eyes are on the pass rush, but setting the edge is another question mark with Terrell Suggs gone. Cullen said Pernell McPhee is the best in that department opposite Judon, but you really prefer him being more situational rusher than starter in the base defense. That’s worrisome.

6. You’ve probably noticed the lack of Marquise Brown observations this past week, but the rookie first-round pick just isn’t doing much beyond individual position work. He obviously won’t play Thursday, but you’d certainly expect the Ravens to increase his activity level after that.

7. Veterans always deserve the benefit of the doubt this time of year, but it’s been a pretty slow start to camp for Jimmy Smith, who gave up two long touchdowns to Jacksonville receivers Tuesday and was visibly frustrated. The good news is it’s early August and the 31-year-old is healthy.

8. Besides Brown and Miles Boykin, two young wide receivers I’m looking forward to watching in the preseason are 2018 fourth-round pick Jaleel Scott and rookie free agent Antoine Wesley. Both are tall and have consistently made plays this summer, leaving them in the conversation for a roster spot.

9. Coaches have mentioned Jaylon Ferguson still adjusting to the speed of the game, but you hope being able to let loose in preseason action will get him going. How much he does — or doesn’t do — on special teams may dictate how he’s handled on game days early in the regular season.

10. Patrick Ricard and Cyrus Jones are two bubble players with which I’ve been impressed. Ricard has delivered crushing blocks as a fullback and extra tight end and provides game-day versatility as a defensive lineman. Strictly a punt returner last year, Jones has played with an edge as a nickel corner.

11. How Kaare Vedvik kicks in preseason games will determine whether the Ravens are able to fetch anything in a trade. I can’t imagine more than a conditional seventh-rounder, but he’ll need to show more accuracy than he has this spring and summer. The leg strength is definitely there.

12. Thirty minutes into Monday’s practice, Jacksonville’s James Onwualu was carted off the field with a season-ending knee injury. In the first 11 camp practices, not a single Raven was carted off and only a few even left the field with a health concern. I’ll now wait for the jinx accusations.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts at start of training camp

Posted on 25 July 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens beginning their 24th training camp in Baltimore, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Brandon Williams carried on the tradition of driving Steve Bisciotti’s golf cart onto the field, but it was very different not seeing or hearing Terrell Suggs on the first day of practice. His trash talk and carrying on largely represented the soundtrack of training camp. Practice was much quieter.

2. Michael Pierce deserves credit for his candor discussing his weight and conditioning problems and the work he’s put in. He took a scale on his pre-planned trip to Italy and ate only seafood and lighter fare. He’s a better man than I would have been for laying off the pasta.

3. The start of practice was pretty ugly for Lamar Jackson, but he knocked off rust to throw the ball much better in the latter half. He was picked by Chuck Clark while rolling to his right, but Jackson made some strong intermediate and deep passes and showed more accuracy.

4. John Harbaugh said the offense “looked like it was the first day” as the line struggled to protect and the unit committed way too many pre-snap penalties. That’s typical for this time of year, but a run-first attack will need do the little things well to stay on schedule.

5. Patrick Onwuasor seems to be taking to a leadership role as he is now playing “Mike” linebacker and even offered an opening statement at the podium Thursday, a rarity for a player interview. He says he listened and learned plenty in his first three years to prepare for this opportunity.

6. Marquise Brown not being cleared for the first day was disappointing, but it’s wise not to push with the soreness he still feels when cutting. The sense is he should at least be a limited participant by next week, but concern will grow if that doesn’t happen. He needs reps.

7. After a hamstring injury limited him this spring, Miles Boykin showed good speed in his snaps with the first-team offense. He dropped a pretty deep ball from Jackson, but he rebounded to haul in a contested catch for a touchdown against Earl Thomas in coverage and made some other plays.

8. Despite failing his conditioning test and sitting out the first day, Shane Ray has a real opportunity to revitalize his career and carve out a big role if healthy. I’m not sure whether that says more about his spring work or the lack of confidence in the younger options.

9. Fellow veteran Pernell McPhee lined up as the starting rush linebacker opposite Matthew Judon on the first day. I’m interested to see how the 30-year-old’s reps are managed with his injury history in mind, but I still anticipate him being more of a situational inside rusher than anything else.

10. Ben Powers reaped the benefits of getting to play left guard with Alex Lewis and Jermaine Eluemunor not practicing and James Hurst filling in for Orlando Brown Jr. at right tackle on the first day. This competition is wide open, but the rookie fourth-round pick is definitely in the mix.

11. We’ve spotlighted the early-round draft misses in recent years, but the 2016 rookie class that included second- and third-round busts Kamalei Correa and Bronson Kaufusi also produced Judon, a fifth-round pick, as well as Onwuasor and Pierce, two undrafted free agents. Talk about terrific value.

12. One of the biggest surprises to begin camp was seeing a beard-free Marshal Yanda, a sight I couldn’t remember in my time on the beat. The seven-time Pro Bowl right guard appears to be in good shape entering his 13th season.

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2019 Ravens training camp preview: Safeties

Posted on 16 July 2019 by Luke Jones

With training camp beginning in just over a week and the preseason opener less than a month away, we’ll look at each Ravens position group before players begin reporting to Owings Mills for the first full-squad practice on July 25.

Cornerbacks
Running backs
Defensive line
Tight ends

We continue at safety, a position at which the organization has exhausted extensive resources since Ed Reed played his final game as a Raven in Super Bowl XLVII. After failed draft picks and several underwhelming value signings, Baltimore finally went all in at the position by giving out a free-agent contract totaling $26 million or more in three of the last four offseasons. Those dollars have given the Ravens one of the best safety groups in the NFL

This position isn’t quite as deep as cornerback, but the philosophy is similar with versatile pieces capable of filling different roles within the defense. This offers defensive coordinator Wink Martindale the option to rotate if he wants to give someone a breather or offer a different look to an opponent.

Below is a look at the safeties who stand out for various reasons:

The Man — Earl Thomas
Skinny: The six-time Pro Bowl selection who helped lead Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” defense to a Super Bowl championship and another appearance in the big game gives the Ravens their first true center fielder at free safety since Reed. The defense will miss Eric Weddle’s football intellect on the back end, but Thomas provides a clear play-making upgrade and shouldn’t have too much difficulty adjusting to Baltimore’s more complex system from the direct Cover 3 looks he ran with the Seahawks. A four-year, $55 million contract including $32 million guaranteed automatically makes you “the man” of this group.

Old Reliable — Tony Jefferson
Skinny: Considering Thomas hasn’t played as much as a preseason game in a Ravens uniform, Jefferson is the default choice here as he’s become one of the defensive leaders after the departures of Weddle, Terrell Suggs, and C.J. Mosley in the offseason. The 27-year-old is at his best playing closer to the line of scrimmage and has missed only three games in his six-year NFL career. Critics may knock his four-year, $34 million contract or his intermediate-to-deep pass coverage, but the Ravens very much value what Jefferson brings to the field and the locker room.

Under Fire — Thomas
Skinny: The lucrative financial commitment made to Thomas came after he broke his lower left leg for the second time in three seasons last September and played in just 29 games over the last three seasons. The 30-year-old was playing at an elite level in the opening month of 2018, but you have to at least wonder what long-term toll the latest injury might have on his speed and agility entering his 10th season. Much is riding on Thomas remaining a special talent after so many key departures on defense left plenty of question marks among the front seven.

Up-and-Comer — DeShon Elliott
Skinny: The 2018 sixth-round pick from Texas missed his rookie year after breaking his forearm in the preseason, but he was arguably the biggest surprise of the spring, showing impressive range in pass coverage on a few highlight interceptions. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound Elliott also stood out with some physical play early in last year’s training camp, so that coupled with coverage ability could make it difficult to keep the 22-year-old off the field if the same play-making ability flashes this summer.

Sleeper — Anthony Levine
Skinny: The 32-year-old really shouldn’t be a sleeper at this point, but he remains underappreciated — especially outside Baltimore — as one of the best dime backs in the NFL. After years of that sub package being an afterthought, Levine finally got his chance in the role a few years ago and has excelled. The longtime special-teams standout recorded pass breakups on two of the final four defensive plays in the win over Cleveland last December to clinch the AFC North title, just an example of how important he’s been to the Ravens’ defensive success over the last few years.

The Rest — Chuck Clark, Bennett Jackson
Skinny: Clark has been a rock-solid contributor as a backup safety and special-teams player over his first two seasons, but the deep depth across the secondary may mean it’s no lock the 2017 sixth-round selection from Virgina Tech makes the roster. Despite never appearing in an NFL regular-season game after being drafted by the New York Giants out of Notre Dame in 2014, Jackson is still chasing the dream after spending the 2018 preseason and part of the regular season on Baltimore’s practice squad.

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