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Baltimore Ravens middle linebacker Josh Bynes is introduced onto the field prior to an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

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Revisiting Ravens’ positional needs after first week of free agency

Posted on 23 March 2020 by Luke Jones

The Ravens didn’t begin the offseason in the way many anticipated.

The defensive line was identified by most as an area to address, but few figured it would be the top priority with the acquisitions of five-time Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell and defensive tackle Michael Brockers headlining general manager Eric DeCosta’s start to the new league year. The versatile Campbell addresses the much-discussed pass rush in a different way than a traditional edge defender, but there is more work to be done with the front seven as well as other positions on a team with visions of winning the Super Bowl next season.

Below is how I rank those needs a week into free agency:

5. Depth

This descriptor applies specifically to the defensive line and tight end. The defensive line is much improved, but Campbell, Brockers, Brandon Williams, and Justin Ellis are all 29 or older and the trade of Chris Wormley leaves the Ravens thin behind the starters. The Ravens received good value in the Hayden Hurst trade, but tight end is too critical to Greg Roman’s offense to dismiss the need to replace his 457 regular-season snaps with a quality option. Each of these positions could be covered in the middle-to-late rounds of the draft, of course.

4. Outside linebacker

The position’s overall value and long-term outlook still makes it a priority, but the decisions to place the franchise tag on Matthew Judon and trade for Campbell ease short-term concerns about both the pass rush and setting the edge. The concern is Judon only being under contract for next season and Campbell turning 34 by Week 1. The Ravens went 14-2 last year with the quartet of Judon, 2019 third-round pick Jaylon Ferguson, Jihad Ward, and Tyus Bowser at outside linebacker — without a pass-rushing talent like Campbell up front, mind you — but Ferguson is the only one of those four under contract after 2020. A veteran like Clay Matthews or Pernell McPhee could make sense at a low price, but the Ravens need to find a long-term answer, especially if they’re not comfortable giving Judon a lucrative multiyear deal.

3. Wide receiver

At the beginning of the offseason, I believed this to be more of a want than a dire need when keeping the proper perspective in evaluating last year’s record-setting offense, but the decision to trade Hurst — who ranked third on the team in receiving yards and first among non-running backs in catch percentage — likely signals some shift in target distribution. Expecting more from a fully healthy Marquise Brown is more than fair, but the Ravens need another high-ceiling option to compete with Willie Snead and Miles Boykin for targets. The free-agent wide receiver market being so slow to develop reflects just how much talent evaluators believe in this year’s draft class. With seven selections in the top 143 spots of next month’s draft, DeCosta should have no problem taking a meaningful swing or two at a receiver.

2. Interior offensive line

Offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris has done a good job developing the likes of Matt Skura, Ryan Jensen, and Bradley Bozeman and Lamar Jackson’s presence makes the offensive line’s job easier, but you can’t lose a generational player like Marshal Yanda without having concerns about any replacement and the impact on the rest of the unit. Skura’s rehabilitation from a serious knee injury makes it more critical for the Ravens to add a legitimate option to the interior mix. I never figured Baltimore would spend big money on a free agent like Graham Glasgow, but the Ravens haven’t seen enough of 2019 fourth-round pick Ben Powers to simply hand him the job. Whether it’s with a value signing like Kelechi Osmele or an early draft pick, replacing Yanda will be an unavoidable question going into the season.

1. Inside linebacker

The Ravens don’t need to find the next Ray Lewis here as last year showed the value of this position probably isn’t what it used to be in Baltimore’s defense, but the presence of a three-down linebacker would make Martindale’s life easier using his various sub packages. Veteran free-agent options such as Cory Littleton and Joe Schobert were always going to be unrealistic from a financial standpoint, but L.J. Fort, Chris Board, and Otaro Alaka are the only Baltimore inside linebackers currently under contract for 2020, making at least one viable or proven addition a clear need. Bringing back Josh Bynes or perhaps even Patrick Onwuasor on a short-term deal could make sense at the right price, but, just like the outside linebacker position, some long-term stability is needed.

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Ravens to acquire Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell from Jacksonville

Posted on 15 March 2020 by Luke Jones

Days before the scheduled start of the new league year, the Ravens have quite possibly made their biggest move of the offseason to boost their pass rush and front seven for the 2020 season.

General manager Eric DeCosta is set to acquire five-time Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell from the Jacksonville Jaguars in exchange for a 2020 fifth-round pick, according to multiple outlets. The deal will not be made official until the start of the new league year, which is currently scheduled for Wednesday at 4 p.m. Campbell, 33, is scheduled to make $15 million base salary in the final season of a four-year deal, but the sides are nearing an extension to keep him under contract through 2021, according to NFL Network.

Coming off his third straight Pro Bowl campaign with the Jaguars, the 6-foot-8, 300-pound Campbell immediately becomes Baltimore’s top pass rusher and has registered 6 1/2 or more sacks in four straight seasons and at least five quarterback takedowns in each of the last 11 years. Pro Football Focus graded him as the second-best edge defender in the NFL and its best run defender of 2019, speaking to his all-around skill in the trenches. In 16 starts last season, Campbell collected 6 1/2 sacks, 56 tackles, and one pass breakup while registering 71 total pressures by PFF’s count.

Campbell has recorded 88 sacks, 696 tackles, 14 forced fumbles, and 48 pass breakups over a 12-year career in which he’s missed only six total games.

Playing extensively as both an interior lineman and edge defender over the years, Campbell will give defensive coordinator Wink Martindale plenty of flexibility to use different looks along the defensive line. Campbell will likely line up as a 5-technique defensive end in the Ravens’ 3-4 “base” defense, but he’ll move all over the place in other packages, which could give nightmares to opposing offensive lines trying to minimize his impact. His presence could also allow the Baltimore pass rush to rely less on numbers than it did in 2019 when the defense blitzed a league-high 54.9 percent of the time, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.

Relying heavily on that blitzing as well as a top-notch secondary to finish fourth in Football Outsiders’ defensive efficiency last season, the Ravens ranked 21st in the NFL with 37 sacks last season.

It’s been a long time since the Ravens have had a talent of Campbell’s size and skill set with the best comparison perhaps being former defensive end Trevor Pryce, who piled up 13 sacks in his first year with Baltimore in 2006 and amassed 26 in parts of five seasons. Pryce was three years younger when he signed with the Ravens, but Campbell is playing at a higher level, arguably even better in his 30s than he was over his first nine seasons with the Arizona Cardinals. The 2008 second-round pick from Miami will turn 34 on Sept. 1.

Campbell’s value goes beyond what he brings to the field as he received the 2019 Walter Payton Man of the Year award for his community work and is one of the most respected players around the league. His leadership qualities will be welcomed by a young team that lost eight-time Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda to retirement last week.

Now on the hook for a significant financial obligation to Campbell after committing just under $16 million with the franchise tag for Pro Bowl outside linebacker Matthew Judon, the Ravens could face some tough choices related to a suddenly tight salary cap. They still must decide on their $6 million 2020 option for veteran defensive back Brandon Carr in the coming days and could now feel more urgency to either work out a long-term contract with Judon or trade him rather than allowing the 27-year-old to play for the tag amount for 2020.

The deal will be viewed as another massive win for DeCosta as he will trade the 2020 fifth-round pick acquired from Minnesota last summer for kicker Kaare Vedvik, who faltered with the Vikings and was waived weeks later. This trade coupled with the deal for Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters last October means DeCosta essentially swapped Vedvik, inside linebacker Kenny Young, and his original 2020 fifth-round pick for two established Pro Bowl defensive talents.

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Ravens must walk fine line between evolving, fixing what isn’t broken

Posted on 04 March 2020 by Luke Jones

Free agency officially begins in two weeks and the 2020 draft is only 50 days away for the Ravens.

The sting of the best regular season in franchise history ending with an upset divisional-round loss lingers less than two months later. The mental challenge of moving on and trying to exorcise those playoff demons will persist long after general manager Eric DeCosta plays his offseason hand and head coach John Harbaugh has a better idea of what his team will look like in the coming weeks.

Yes, we’ve reached the point in the offseason when it feels as though every team — even Super Bowl champion Kansas City — has more questions than answers with no shortage of free-agent projections, mock drafts, and lists of needs to mull over.

How do the Ravens proceed if eight-time Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda indeed retires?

What will be the resolution with Pro Bowl outside linebacker Matthew Judon, and how will that impact a pass rush already desiring more juice?

Are there enough cap dollars and draft picks available to effectively retool a free-agent-laden front seven that already had its deficiencies last year?

What about — for the “I lost count”-th year in a row — wide receiver?

But this is when the Ravens — and their fans — need perspective more than a linebacker, guard, or defensive tackle. Going an NFL-best 14-2 with the best point differential in the league in more than a decade — with some of the aforementioned concerns, mind you — shouldn’t be an invitation for complacency, but there is a fine line between evolving and trying to fix something that isn’t broken. Baltimore surely took lessons from the Tennessee loss — needing to be able to play more effectively off schedule, for example — but a bad day at the office at the wrong time didn’t mean there was some fatal flaw in need of upheaval.

Having the most efficient running and passing games in the league and a top-tier defense isn’t an identity from which to stray too far despite how tempting it can be to be bold addressing weaknesses. That’s where you trust an analytics-minded front office and coaching staff to understand themselves and the entire body of 2019 work rather than to overreact to one heartbreaking loss or a couple failed fourth-and-1 plays. Of course, there’s work to do.

“We understand that we are going to be studied on both sides of the ball by every single team in the league very thoroughly.” Harbaugh said in January. “We’ll be the first team that they will pull the tape up on and watch. Our job is to stay ahead. Our job is to find the areas where we can come up with new ideas — expand, tweak, challenge people the way they challenged us or the way we anticipate them challenging us going forward.”

Losing Yanda would definitely be a big blow to a record-setting offense, but the 2017 Ravens were a last-second Week 17 collapse away from making the playoffs without him or reigning NFL MVP Lamar Jackson, who was spending his last days at Louisville. Jackson’s unparalleled athleticism at the quarterback position will continue to make life easier for the offensive line and whoever might need to replace Yanda.

Few would argue that the Ravens would benefit from another wide receiver to make more plays outside the numbers, but the strength of the passing game remains the middle of the field with Jackson heavily targeting his tight ends, something unlikely to change as defenses across the NFL struggle to account for big, athletic tight ends. DeCosta and Harbaugh have expressed optimism about receivers being more open to playing in this unique run-first offense, but the right fit is more critical than adding “a true No. 1” who might grow unhappy with a fraction of the targets he’s used to seeing in a typical offense.

Speculation about trading tight end Hayden Hurst and mock drafts projecting the Ravens to take a running back in the first round would fall under the category of trying too hard to fix something that isn’t broken. The Yanda decision aside, this offense simply doesn’t need a ton of work beyond adding another pass-catching option at some point and implementing whatever system tweaks offensive coordinator Greg Roman and the staff cook up between now and September.

The defense is a different story with the front seven having multiple free agents, a list including Judon, defensive tackles Michael Pierce and Domata Peko, inside linebackers Josh Bynes and Patrick Onwuasor, and situational rushers Pernell McPhee and Jihad Ward. However, nearly half of those players were added during the 2019 season, a testament to defensive coordinator Wink Martindale and the front office to at least identify viable placeholders and account for less-than-ideal conditions.

An edge defender or two, a three-down inside linebacker, and a defensive tackle with pass-rushing ability would all be welcome additions, but that’s an ambitious list for one offseason. There’s no guarantee the right pass rusher or inside linebacker will be on the board when Baltimore selects 28th overall in next month’s draft, and there are red flags everywhere with free-agent edge rushers — Judon included.

Regardless of what happens in free agency and the draft, the Ravens will continue to lean on an elite secondary, a defensive strength endorsed by analytics, and the frequent blitzing that made a rebuilt defense one of the league’s best over the second half of 2019. The identity is in place, which is more than many defensive units can say at this point. Last season proved the personnel doesn’t need to be perfect.

“I think we want to have really good players at all those positions,” DeCosta said in Indianapolis last week. “I’d love to have some elite pass rushers. I’d love to have some elite corners. I think Wink Martindale does an unbelievable job taking players, finding out what they can do, putting them in position to succeed, and they did that this year. What we were able to do on defense under Wink’s guidance with our coaches and our players — bringing in all those guys that we did — I thought that was masterful.”

The Ravens are bound to face some roster turbulence over the next few weeks. A year ago at this time, DeCosta didn’t know he’d be losing perennial Pro Bowl defenders C.J. Mosley and Terrell Suggs, and desperate teams frequently overpay players coming from winning organizations. Baltimore has never been in the business of “winning” the offseason, and that’s unlikely to change simply because of a little more salary cap space than usual this year. Long-term planning is too critical, especially with the elite talents up for contract extensions over the next couple years such as left tackle Ronnie Stanley, cornerback Marlon Humphrey, and Jackson.

The truth is I’d take this team essentially as it is — meaning all but sitting out free agency and having only an ordinary draft class — up against any conference opponent not named the Chiefs next fall. Even with the disappointment of January being so slow to dissipate, that is rare territory and speaks to the tremendous opportunity Baltimore has to improve this offseason.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the Ravens are going 14-2 again — only three teams have ever done that in back-to-back years — as unforeseen challenges await next season. They can’t count on the schedule to fall the right way or for their remarkably good health over the last two seasons to continue, but those are realities every team faces. That’s why the Ravens know they must continue to evolve without drastically altering what they do best.

“We’re not going to be sitting on our hands schematically,” Harbaugh said. “We are not going to be saying, ‘OK, we have this offense and this defensive system that was hard for people to deal with, and we are good.'”

But they are good. Very good.

That makes this year’s offseason uncertainty easier than usual to handle, regardless of how it all plays out.

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Yanda “to think about things” regarding future with Ravens

Posted on 17 January 2020 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The future remains bright for the Ravens despite their stunning playoff loss to Tennessee, but one of their cornerstone players must still decide whether to return next season.

Eight-time Pro Bowl selection Marshal Yanda remains one of the best guards in football late in his brilliant career, but head coach John Harbaugh confirmed the 35-year-old will “think about things going forward” before potentially playing a 14th season. Yanda remains under contract for the 2020 campaign and is scheduled to make $7 million in base salary after signing a one-year extension last spring.

“I’m all for him playing Hall of Fame football for another year if he so chooses, and I did tell him that,” said Harbaugh, who spoke to Yanda after Saturday’s loss. “I let him know that, and we had a good hug and stuff. But he’ll do what’s right for his family, and whatever he does, we’ll respect it. I just couldn’t say enough good things — great things — about Marshal Yanda and his family.”

Graded as the NFL’s fourth-best guard by Pro Football Focus and selected to his eighth Pro Bowl in the last nine seasons, Yanda was voted a second-team All-Pro by the Associated Press and named to the All-NFL team by the Pro Football Writers of America after the Ravens offense set numerous franchise records and an NFL single-season rushing mark. The 2007 third-round pick out of Iowa ranks fourth on the franchise’s career Pro Bowl selections list behind only Ray Lewis, Jonathan Ogden, and Ed Reed, three of his former teammates already enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Since missing most of the 2017 season with a broken ankle, Yanda has assessed his future on an annual basis, often noting the importance of being healthy at the conclusion of his career. The veteran lineman has missed only one game over the last two years, last month’s regular-season finale in which Harbaugh rested him and several other key starters.

Another Pro Bowl berth or two would fortify his Hall of Fame case at a position that’s historically been underrepresented in Canton, but Yanda takes pride in being a team-first player, making the disappointment of last Saturday’s loss and Baltimore’s bright prospects for 2020 more compelling reasons for his return than chasing an individual accomplishment. A Super Bowl XLVII champion and father of three children, the Iowa native didn’t shy away from calling the 2019 Ravens the best team on which he’d ever played during the season.

“I am not assessing my whole career and whatnot, but it definitely is a tough way to end,” said Yanda, who wouldn’t address his future immediately after Saturday’s loss. “How hot we ended the season, a 12-game [winning] streak, to have them come into our house and beat us at home, that’s tough.”

Judon’s free agency

Addressing the front seven of the defense is expected to be one of Baltimore’s top offseason tasks with Pro Bowl outside linebacker Matthew Judon headlining a list of unrestricted free agents.

With Judon coming off a career year that included a team-high 9 1/2 sacks and a fourth-place league finish in quarterback hits (33), Harbaugh acknowledged re-signing him would be “pretty hard” despite the Ravens “very much” wanting him back for 2020 and beyond.

“There’s no question that that’s a priority for us, and that’s something that’s really important to us,” Harbaugh said. “We’re going to try to get as many of these guys re-signed as we can. Matt is probably right at the top of the list for sure. There are a lot of things that can go into that as we all know — the business part of it.”

Offensive assistants staying put

Quarterbacks coach James Urban and tight ends coach Bobby Engram both interviewed for coaching positions with Philadelphia before withdrawing from consideration, according to Harbaugh.

Urban was a candidate for the Eagles’ offensive coordinator job while Engram had been linked to their wide receivers coach opening, a position he held with Baltimore from 2014-18. The Ravens keeping their coaching staff intact after a 14-2 season would have to be considered a mild upset after offensive coordinator Greg Roman and defensive coordinator Wink Martindale unsuccessfully interviewed for head coach openings with Cleveland and the New York Giants respectively.

“It looks like our staff is going to stay together. I can tell you that,” Harbaugh said. “I’m not saying anything couldn’t happen. There are always things brewing for a certain period of time.”

Pro Bowl plans

After agreeing to coach the AFC squad, Harbaugh said he hasn’t actively recruited any of Baltimore’s 13 Pro Bowl selections to play in next week’s spectacle, but the expected NFL MVP will indeed be going to Orlando.

Noncommittal about his Pro Bowl status after the loss to the Titans, second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson will play in the NFL’s exhibition for the stars. For now, the Ravens are scheduled to have 12 players take part in the game after right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. was added to the AFC roster and cornerback Marcus Peters dropped out earlier this week.

“Lamar wants to go. He’s fired up. I did know that,” Harbaugh said. “He told me he couldn’t wait. He didn’t have anything planned. He had no arrangements made. He didn’t know anything. He didn’t know what day he had to be there yet, but he’s excited.”

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Ravens must endure “hard truth” until back on January stage

Posted on 13 January 2020 by Luke Jones

A few Ravens players described it as a nightmare, hoping to wake up Saturday morning with a mulligan.

Matthew Judon compared it to a car crash.

Lamar Jackson said the offense got “too excited” and out of its element “a little too fast” after falling behind early.

There was much blame to go around and plenty of theories why top-seeded Baltimore suffered a stunning 28-12 loss to Tennessee in the divisional round, but Marlon Humphrey’s words stung most for a team that had gone an NFL-best 14-2, won 12 straight games, and rewritten both the franchise and league record books during a magical regular season.

“We’ve been here two years in a row, and we’ve lost,” said Humphrey, citing last January’s wild-card home defeat to the Los Angeles Chargers. “I think you’ve got to look yourself in the mirror, and I think this team right now, its identity is to get in the playoffs and choke. It is what it is. That’s just the hard truth.”

The “choke” word is harsh, but it comes from someone who won a national championship and finished as runner-up in his other collegiate season at Alabama, where the standard is college football’s highest. When you dominate the NFL for three months before seeing your Super Bowl aspirations crumble in three hours against a 9-7 team in your home stadium, there are few scenarios in the sporting realm where the term is more appropriate. Setting numerous records and finishing with the NFL’s highest point differential (plus-249) since 16-0 New England in 2007, the Ravens indeed fell short of the expectations they’d created for themselves, let alone what media or fans anticipated going into the playoffs.

No matter how disappointing Saturday night was in Baltimore, the future remains as bright for the Ravens as any team in football. Jackson was far from his best — as you could say about virtually every other Raven against the Titans — but the dynamic 23-year-old will be the NFL MVP and leads a young, innovative, and record-setting offense with virtually everyone under contract for 2020. Barring something completely unforeseen, coordinators Greg Roman and Wink Martindale will both return after failing to land head coaching jobs elsewhere. And thanks to having a franchise quarterback entering the third season of his rookie contract, general manager Eric DeCosta begins the offseason with over $30 million in salary cap space before any potential maneuvering to clear more room.

But there are no guarantees, which makes laying the divisional-round egg that much more difficult to accept. Despite how easy the Ravens made it look all season, so much has to go remarkably well to go 14-2 and secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, some of it out of a team’s control. That’s not to say such a sterling record or the top seed is a requisite for a championship — the 2000 and 2012 teams send their regards — but luck plays a bigger part in a Super Bowl run than most want to admit. A first-round bye and playing at home is like being able to hedge your bets, much like John Harbaugh did by wisely not risking injury to Jackson and the handful of other key starters in the regular-season finale against Pittsburgh.

Optimists will frame this as part of Baltimore’s journey to its next Super Bowl title, recalling the heartbreak of the 2011 AFC Championship game and how the 2012 Ravens would go on to finish the job despite not achieving the same level of regular-season success. On the other hand, the 2006 Ravens lost at home to Indianapolis in the divisional round and regressed from a then-franchise-best 13-3 record to a 5-11 injury-plagued disaster in 2007.

Of the previous five NFL teams to secure a No. 1 seed and lose in the divisional round, two got to the Super Bowl the next year and lost, one fell in the divisional round again, another lost a wild-card playoff game, and the most recent — the 2016 Dallas Cowboys — failed to even reach the postseason the following year. The Denver Broncos (2012) would wait three years to win a Super Bowl while the Patriots (2010) wouldn’t win their next NFL championship for four more years after losing in the divisional round as No. 1 seeds. Those other three are still waiting for that redemptive Super Bowl title years later.

The Ravens indeed let a massive opportunity slip through their fingers, no matter how promising the future looks on paper.

The next 12 months will be a grind, for everyone from DeCosta and Harbaugh to Jackson and every other returning Raven who left the field in disappointment Saturday night. There are probably parallels you can draw with the infamous Super Bowl loser hangover except there being no January success from which Baltimore can draw after so much regular-season success.

Compartmentalizing and not giving into any thoughts of complacency or obsession about the postseason will be an unspoken challenge in the coming days, weeks, and months. As Harbaugh likes to say, you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse, a message he’ll surely convey over and over to his players from the moment they return to the team facility for the start of the offseason training program in April.

Fair or not, every shred of success next season will be met by a detractor saying, “That’s great, but what about January?” And there’s little the Ravens will really be able to say or do about that until next postseason — if all goes according to plan, of course.

Saturday’s defeat shouldn’t ruin what was the best regular season in franchise history. But much like the 2006 team that previously held that distinction and was much fun in its own right, these Ravens disappointed mightily in the postseason, the time when legacies are defined and feelings entrenched.

That’s just the hard truth.

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Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson celebrates after throwing a touchdown pass against the Los Angeles Rams during the first half of an NFL football game Monday, Nov. 25, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

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After long layoff, top-seeded Ravens starting fast would ease biggest concerns

Posted on 09 January 2020 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Lamar Jackson says “it feels like it’s been forever” since he last played in a game, a full 20 days by the time the Ravens kick off their playoff opener against Tennessee on Saturday.

Rest and extra time to prepare are clear advantages for a team already superior in virtually every meaningful way to the Titans, who became the first team since the 2009 Ravens to beat New England in the wild-card round last weekend. But that’s an accomplishment and a path that shouldn’t be taken lightly, especially by an organization that relished an underdog road journey to two Super Bowl championships and a number of other playoff victories over the last two decades.

While the top-seeded Ravens focused on themselves and could prepare for the big picture over the better part of these last few weeks, the Titans have been busy fighting for their January lives with a Week 17 win at Houston to clinch a wild-card spot and a 20-13 victory over the Patriots in Foxborough just to get to Baltimore this weekend. If the 14-2 Ravens are slow to flip the switch in their first meaningful game since Week 16, that urgency is something that can work in No. 6 seed Tennessee’s favor.

“You just keep playing. You keep that edge. You are kind of going week to week,” said head coach John Harbaugh, whose Ravens knocked off a heavily favored Denver team on the way to a Super Bowl title seven years ago. “There’s not time to breathe or think about anything. I absolutely think that can be a plus. It has been for us in the past. We’ve been pretty good on the road over the years in the playoff times historically. There’s certainly something to that, and we’re well aware of that on the other side of it.”

That’s why the Ravens starting fast is more important than the typical way we discuss that cliche ahead of a big game. In fact, nearly every potential concern or pitfall discussed this week would be mitigated by the NFL’s best offense scoring on its first couple drives and one of the league’s top defenses making life difficult for the Tennessee offense early on. Such a beginning would make a blowout victory far more likely than the chance of an upset at M&T Bank Stadium.

Any concern of the Ravens being rusty or losing their edge after such a long layoff would be swatted away with a 10-0 lead before fans finish their first in-game beverage. That’s hardly out of the question considering Baltimore scored on its first two drives in eight of its 16 regular-season games while the Titans did that just once — Week 17 against a Texans team resting multiple starters — and managed to score on their opening drive only three times in the regular season before last Saturday’s playoff win.

But a slower start by the Ravens — one like we saw in Cleveland three weeks ago, for example — would give Tennessee the opportunity to carry over some of its wild-card weekend mojo and execute its optimal game plan. While quarterback Ryan Tannehill and the Titans rode NFL rushing champion Derrick Henry to an ordinary two-touchdown output against the Patriots, their offense ranks first in average yards per play, second in expected points added per play, and second in percentage of drives ending in touchdowns since Tannehill took over at quarterback in Week 7. It was a forgettable postseason debut for Tannehill with just 72 passing yards, a touchdown, and an interception last Saturday, but dismissing a 136.4 passer rating using play-action fakes and 22 touchdown passes to just six interceptions in 12 regular-season games is a brazen position.

Even if you’re waiting for the former Miami quarterback to turn back into a pumpkin after surprisingly leading the NFL in passer rating, Tannehill has been excellent against the blitz, something the Ravens do more frequently than anyone. Sustainable for the long haul or not, the formula has been there for Tannehill to succeed and the Titans to score prolifically with Henry and a good offensive line keeping them on schedule and rookie wide receiver A.J. Brown emerging as a big-play threat down the stretch.

It all begins with the 6-foot-3, 247-pound Henry, whom defensive coordinator Wink Martindale compared to a video-game creation at running back that “shouldn’t be that big and be able to run like he runs.” His propensity to get to the edge and cutback on outside-zone plays is a running style that’s given the Baltimore run defense some problems this season, another reason why a fast start is so important. An early deficit puts more pressure on Tannehill and minimizes Henry’s impact, even if he does find some running room over the course of the game.

“I think when the run game gets going, that’s when the play-action shot is available because the defense is so aggressive trying to stop the run,” safety Earl Thomas said. “If we knock that out from the start, I think we’ll be fine. If Tannehill tries to pass on us, I don’t think that will go in their favor. We know they’re going to try to run the ball. But we just have to stop the run and play sound on the back end. I think that will take care of the play-action pass.”

A strong beginning would also extinguish any lingering memory of last year’s playoff disappointment, a loss that drove Jackson’s remarkable improvement in the offseason that molded him into the league’s MVP. Of course, the 23-year-old needs no validation after a historic season in which he led the NFL in touchdown passes and shattered the single-season rushing record for a quarterback, but he’s waited and prepared 12 months for this very moment. Jackson is the first to tell you that all he cares about is winning the Super Bowl, which was what he famously promised on draft night less than two years ago.

That loss to the Los Angeles Chargers was not only a catalyst for the construction of the Ravens’ “revolutionary” offense this past offseason, but it serves as a painful reminder of how quickly playoff hopes can be dashed if you’re not ready. At one point in the first quarter of that 23-17 loss, Baltimore fumbled on three straight plays from scrimmage. Such a sequence seems unfathomable for a team that has won a franchise-record 12 consecutive games and has set all kinds of records, but a sleepy beginning and a critical mistake or two at the wrong time would give the upstart Titans their chance at an upset.

We’ll find out if it’s easier said than done Saturday night, but the Ravens merely need to pick up where they left off as the NFL’s best team over the last three months. A slow start hardly means they’re doomed, of course, but Baltimore would much prefer to leave no doubt from the opening kick and crush any hopes on the Titans’ side.

“Can’t start too late. You have to attack fast,” said Jackson about last year’s playoff loss. “It doesn’t really matter what quarter it is. First or second [quarter], you have to attack. You just have to finish the game strong.

“You can’t just go into the game playing half-assed. You’ll have the same results.”

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Twelve Ravens thoughts on divisional playoff meeting with Tennessee

Posted on 06 January 2020 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens now knowing they’ll face Tennessee in their first home divisional playoff game in eight years, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. A talking point for John Harbaugh to his players this week will be how rare January road wins in Foxborough have been the last two decades. The Titans are the lesser team on paper, but beating New England in the playoffs garners a level of respect Baltimore shouldn’t dismiss.

2. Starting fast is a cliched key one can mention every week, but the Ravens can silence all discussion of rust or losing their edge by jumping on the Titans early. It would also remind Mike Vrabel’s team that any confidence gained from beating the Patriots will only go so far.

3. Derrick Henry led the NFL in rushing as Tennessee finished third in rushing and fifth in Football Outsiders’ run efficiency. Henry’s propensity to cut back on edge runs is a style that’s given Baltimore some issues, so I expect Wink Martindale to use more base defense and big nickel packages.

4. With Lamar Jackson turning 23 on Tuesday, I couldn’t help but ponder a connection with another 23-year-old who won MVP, led Baltimore to a world championship, and wore No. 8. The young quarterback sure followed through on a vow made at Camden Yards this past summer.

5. A three-week layoff from live-game action is one thing, but Jackson battling a stomach bug for several days last week is another variable to consider in the whole rust debate. That’s nothing a couple early designed runs or high-percentage throws can’t remedy, however.

6. Ryan Tannehill has been superb under pressure and against the blitz this season, but he’ll face a Ravens defense that blitzes more frequently than anyone in the NFL. His overall numbers are impressive, but I can’t blame you for waiting for the eighth-year quarterback to turn back into a pumpkin.

7. Baltimore allowed 200 net passing yards just once over the final eight games of the regular season despite winning all but two of those by at least 16 points. Considering how much yardage and scoring you often see in “garbage” time, that’s remarkable — and bad news for Tannehill.

8. You’d expect Dean Pees to be a topic of conversation this week, but just six members of the Ravens’ current offensive roster were with the organization when Pees was defensive coordinator. He’s as unfamiliar with Jackson and this unique system as any coordinator out there.

9. With wide receivers coach David Culley reiterating Marquise Brown isn’t fully healed from last January’s foot surgery, you hope a week off really helped the speedy rookie receiver. Brown made just one catch of 10 or more yards in five combined December games.

10. Meanwhile, fellow rookie A.J. Brown cracked the 1,000-yard receiving mark and registered 100-yard performances for the Titans in four of the last six games of the regular season. Any receiver averaging more than 20 yards per catch is someone to watch.

11. Tennessee ranked 29th in special-teams efficiency and went 8-for-18 on field goals in the process of using four different kickers this season. Justin Tucker has missed nine field goals over the last four seasons combined. Paging Al Del Greco.


(Photo by Getty Images)

12. The early forecast for Saturday night suggests rain showers and winds 10 to 15 miles per hour. Two run-first teams probably wouldn’t mind those conditions one bit, and I can’t imagine a little rain dampening the spirits of a raucous crowd either.

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As honors pour in, Jackson keeps sights on bigger prize for Ravens

Posted on 04 January 2020 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — With Lamar Jackson always quick to credit teammates for his individual success, it’s no wonder another Ravens player would try to accept the quarterback’s latest honor.

As the announcement was being made that Jackson had been voted as team MVP unanimously by the local media, Matthew Judon made a beeline to the podium at the conclusion of Baltimore’s bye week, drawing much laughter. You get the sense Jackson wouldn’t have minded the Pro Bowl outside linebacker receiving the honor, which speaks to the gravitational pull of his leadership within the organization.

“Anyone could have been MVP, I feel. Everyone is MVP because without them, there’s no me,” said Jackson, who was also named to the Associated Press first-team All-Pro team Friday. “I thank the coaching staff, [reporters], my teammates. It’s a team award to me.”

The honors have continued to pour in for the NFL MVP favorite in his second season, but Jackson remains focused on fulfilling the promise he made the night he was drafted less than two years ago — bringing the Ravens their next Super Bowl. Last January’s playoff loss continues to motivate Jackson as he’ll finally have his next postseason chance in the divisional round next Saturday.

Jackson says that hasn’t altered his preparation this week — though an illness did — but his individual accolades and a 14-2 regular season don’t mean anything if the Ravens don’t feel the urgency to play their best football after their bye week.

“You have to go into each and every game the same way,” Jackson said. “This playoff game is a Super Bowl game because if you don’t win, you’re out. You’re going home until next season. I’m treating every game like it’s a Super Bowl game until I’m in there and it says ‘Super Bowl’ across.”

Coordinator interviews

Head coach John Harbaugh said Wink Martindale’s Saturday meeting with the New York Giants and Greg Roman’s meeting with Cleveland on Thursday are the only head coach openings for which his coordinators have scheduled to interview as of yet.

However, the organization granting those requests hasn’t stopped players from trying to keep their coordinators in Baltimore.

“I think he would make a great head coach,” said Judon about Martindale. “But I don’t want to talk about it because I don’t want to lose him. We’ve got some unfinished business. At the end of the season, whenever it happens, talk to me then about it and you’ll see how I feel.”

In his second season as defensive coordinator, Martindale navigated his unit’s early struggles and in-season changes for the Ravens to finish fourth in total defense, third in scoring defense, and fourth in Football Outsiders’ efficiency metric.

Meanwhile, Roman has orchestrated a record-setting offense that’s indeed revolutionized the NFL as Harbaugh predicted in the offseason. With the Ravens setting a single-season league rushing record and becoming the first team in NFL history to average 200 rushing yards and 200 passing yards per game in the regular season, Jackson wants other teams to get in line for their shot at hiring his offensive coordinator.

“They need to chill out. We have something to do right now,” said Jackson as he smiled. “We need him to focus because we need to focus. We’re trying to get somewhere. Let us do ours. You guys are going to have your turn when the season is over with. Just chill — we’re trying to get somewhere.”

Injury report

Pro Bowl running back Mark Ingram missed practice all week while continuing to recover from a left calf injury sustained in Week 16, but the Ravens remain optimistic about a return for the divisional round.

“He’s on track to play,” Harbaugh said. “He should be practicing next week full speed.”

Wide receiver Marquise Brown, defensive tackle Brandon Williams, and offensive linemen Ben Powers and Parker Ehinger were also absent from Friday’s practice as players now enjoy the weekend off.

Tight end Hayden Hurst returned to the field Friday after being one of several players under the weather this week, according to Harbaugh. Jackson practiced for the second straight day Friday and says he’s fully recovered from the illness with which he’d been dealing since last weekend.

“I really don’t get sick. It was like a stomach bug, kind of, but it was weird — nasty feeling, numbness,” Jackson said. “But I was good; I just couldn’t practice. I didn’t want to get around anybody on my team, especially when we need to work. We need to get better each and every day we can. But I’m over it. I’m good, I’m 100 [percent] right now.”

“Good Guy” award

In addition to Jackson predictably being voted team MVP, the local media chose right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. as the “Good Guy” winner.

The honor goes to a Ravens player who goes above and beyond regular media obligations to help reporters do their jobs. It was a tight vote among Brown, right guard Marshal Yanda, and wide receiver Willie Snead.

“You guys are very invested in us as a team and as individuals,” Brown said. “I just try to do my best to deliver. I do my job as a football player, which is talking to you guys and expressing my emotions.”

As a token of appreciation, local reporters will make a donation in Brown’s name to the Ed Block Courage Award Foundation.

Below is a history of the team MVP and “Good Guy” selections (in that order) dating back to the awards’ introduction by the local media in 2003:

2003: Jamal Lewis, Gary Baxter
2004: Ed Reed, Anthony Weaver
2005: Adalius Thomas, Jamal Lewis
2006: Steve McNair, Bart Scott
2007: Willis McGahee, Derrick Mason
2008: Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs
2009: Ray Rice, Jarret Johnson
2010: Haloti Ngata, Chris Carr
2011: Ray Rice, Bernard Pollard
2012: Ray Rice, Arthur Jones
2013: Justin Tucker, Joe Flacco
2014: Justin Forsett, Torrey Smith
2015: Marshal Yanda, Jimmy Smith
2016: Justin Tucker, Zachary Orr
2017: Terrell Suggs, Eric Weddle
2018: Marlon Humphrey, Brandon Carr
2019: Lamar Jackson, Orlando Brown Jr.

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Ravens, Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters reach contract extension

Posted on 28 December 2019 by Luke Jones

A critical component of the remarkable in-season transformation of the Ravens defense will be sticking around beyond the 2019 season.

Just 2 1/2 months after being acquired from the Los Angeles Rams, Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters has agreed to a three-year contract extension worth $42 million and $32 million guaranteed, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. The deal runs through the 2022 season and makes Peters one of the eight highest-paid cornerbacks in the NFL in terms of both average annual value and guaranteed money, according to OverTheCap.com.

With the Ravens having endured numerous injuries in the secondary and ranking 25th in pass defense after Week 6, general manager Eric DeCosta sent disappointing inside linebacker Kenny Young and a 2020 fifth-round pick to the Rams for Peters. The move lacked the fanfare — or long-term risk — of Los Angeles’ decision to then trade two first-round picks and a fourth-round selection to Jacksonville for disgruntled Pro Bowl cornerback Jalen Ramsey, but Peters’ arrival brought immediate dividends for Baltimore, who has climbed all the way to seventh in pass defense entering Week 17.

Despite logging only two practices with the Ravens and flying across the country twice in less than three days, the 26-year-old returned a Russell Wilson pass 67 yards for a touchdown in his Ravens debut, a 30-16 win at Seattle. Peters also returned a pick for a score against Cincinnati in Week 10, giving him a league-leading three interceptions returned for touchdowns this season. The outspoken cornerback also preserved a 24-17 win in Buffalo with a fourth-down pass breakup in the final minutes of Week 14.

Pro Football Focus has graded Peters as the third-best cornerback in the NFL this season, an effort that resulted in the 6-foot, 197-pound defensive back being named to his third Pro Bowl earlier this month.

The financial commitment to Peters is the latest example of DeCosta and the Ravens subscribing to the analytics-minded approach of prioritizing coverage on the back end above all else defensively. Even with veteran Jimmy Smith scheduled to become a free agent, Baltimore has the cornerback trio of Peters, fellow Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey, and slot man Tavon Young under control through at least the 2021 season while Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas is signed through 2022 and fellow starting safety Chuck Clark is under contract through next season.

Having a reputation as a polarizing player both on and off the field prior to his arrival, Peters has been labeled a cornerback “savant” by defensive coordinator Wink Martindale and has fit in well with a defense that’s been one of the NFL’s best since the first month of the season.

Kansas City’s 2015 first-round pick out of Washington, Peters has the most interceptions (27) in the NFL by a wide margin over the last five seasons and is tied for fourth in the league with five interceptions this season. He’s also collected 52 tackles and 14 pass breakups in 15 games split between the Ravens and Rams in 2019.

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No reunion with Ravens as Suggs claimed by Kansas City

Posted on 16 December 2019 by Luke Jones

There will be no reunion between Terrell Suggs and the Ravens for the stretch run as the seven-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker was claimed off waivers by Kansas City on Monday.

Cut by Arizona in a transaction described by Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury as “the best move for both parties” on Friday, Suggs was subject to waivers with Baltimore being last on the priority list with its NFL-best 12-2 record. Reports over the weekend indicated Suggs would likely only be willing to play for the Ravens, but that didn’t stop the Chiefs from claiming the veteran in an effort to boost a pass rush that lost defensive end Alex Okafor to a torn pectoral in Sunday’s win over Denver.

Even if Suggs doesn’t report, Kansas City has at least blocked the Ravens from potentially strengthening their already impressive standing as the favorite in the AFC. For what it’s worth, Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was on Baltimore’s coaching staff from 2013-14.

Though Wink Martindale’s defense has had issues setting the edge against the run — something the 37-year-old still does effectively — and could use more juice for a pass rush that’s relied more heavily on the blitz than any team in the NFL, exactly how much Suggs has left in the tank is up for debate. After registering five sacks in the first seven games of 2019, the 17th-year linebacker logged only one-half sack in his final six games for the Cardinals. His second-half statistical fade is something the Ravens saw in recent years, making one wonder what impact the 2011 Defensive Player of the Year would really have made on the field the rest of the way.

There’s also the question of how Suggs would have fit in a locker room that’s changed substantially since his March free-agent departure. Though outside linebacker Matthew Judon seemed to provide an immediate endorsement for his former teammate to return and many Ravens players have remained in contact since his decision to sign with the Cardinals, Suggs is unquestionably a big personality that left some observers wondering if he’d upset the chemistry on a team only one win away from locking up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Then again, such concerns didn’t sound like much of an endorsement for the strength of that cohesiveness, especially when you acknowledge the number of defensive additions — including a loud personality in cornerback Marcus Peters — who have been absorbed seamlessly since the beginning of the season. The Ravens wanted to retain Suggs in March, aren’t exactly loaded at outside linebacker, and were pleased with the veteran’s leadership and professionalism late in his Baltimore career, leaving little reason to think a reunion couldn’t have worked well for both sides.

That became a moot point Monday, but the Ravens remain more than fine without Suggs as they aim for their 11th straight win in Cleveland on Sunday to clinch the top seed in the AFC.

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