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How did Ravens linebackers stack up to rest of NFL in 2018?

Posted on 08 February 2019 by Luke Jones

The Ravens returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2014, but where did their players stack up across the NFL in 2018?

Whether it’s discussing the Pro Bowl or determining postseason awards, media and fans spend much time debating where players rank at each position, but few watch every player on every team extensively enough to form any type of an authoritative opinion.

Truthfully, how many times did you watch the offensive line of the Detroit Lions this season? What about the Oakland Raiders linebackers or the San Francisco 49ers cornerbacks?

That’s why I appreciate the grading efforts of Pro Football Focus while acknowledging these rankings shouldn’t be viewed as infallible or the gospel of evaluation. I can respect the exhaustive effort to grade players across the league when most of us watch only one team or one division on any kind of a consistent basis.

Below is a look at where Ravens linebackers ranked at their positions followed by the positional outlook going into 2019:

Offensive linemen

Terrell Suggs
2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 744
PFF ranking: 36th among edge defenders
Skinny: The 36-year-old appeared on his way to another double-digit sack season with 5 1/2 through the first seven games, but he slowed considerably with just 1 1/2 the rest of the way. Suggs remains a solid player, but his price tag as a free agent will likely determine whether he stays a Raven.

C.J. Mosley
2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 875
PFF ranking: 22nd among linebackers
Skinny: His PFF grade didn’t align with a fourth trip to the Pro Bowl in five years, but Mosley remains one of the NFL’s top inside linebackers. Eric DeCosta has made it clear retaining him is a top priority, but are the Ravens willing to potentially have to pay Mosley upwards of $14 million per season?

Matthew Judon
2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 674
PFF ranking: 54th among edge defenders
Skinny: Judon never seems to grade favorably in PFF’s eyes, but he’s become a well-rounded starter on the Baltimore defense over the last two seasons and played very well late in the season. The Ravens should at least explore a long-term deal this offseason as Judon is scheduled to hit the market after 2019.

Za’Darius Smith
2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 690
PFF ranking: 33rd among edge defenders
Skinny: His steady improvement over the last few years resulted in a breakout campaign as he led the Ravens with 8 1/2 sacks and had PFF’s 15th-best pass-rushing grade. Smith is the kind of free agent who has usually departed in the past, but does the lack of an heir apparent for Suggs force Baltimore’s hand?

Patrick Onwuasor
2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 434
PFF ranking: 40th among linebackers
Skinny: Most expected Onwuasor to lose his starting job in favor of rookie Kenny Young, but the former was one of the defense’s best players down the stretch. The former undrafted linebacker is a restricted free agent and will likely receive a second-round tender to keep other teams from pursuing his services.

Kenny Young
2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 369
PFF ranking: 67th among linebackers
Skinny: The fourth-round pick appeared to hit the rookie wall as the season progressed, but he still contributed and has flashed enough upside to become a legitimate starter in the future. Young needs to improve in coverage and to play faster in general, but much of that will come with more experience.

Tyus Bowser
2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 162
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: The 2017 second-round pick managed to play only one more defensive snap than he did as a rookie and hasn’t established himself as anything more than a special-teams player. Opportunities will remain in 2019, but time is running out for Bowser to avoid being Baltimore’s latest second-round bust.

Tim Williams
2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 119
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: The 2017 third-round pick appeared to be establishing himself as a situational pass rusher with two sacks over the first four games before he hurt his ankle and fell out of favor in the second half of the season. Like with Bowser, the clock is ticking on Williams, who wasn’t active again after Week 8.

Chris Board
2018 offensive snap count (including postseason): 14
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: The rookie free agent from North Dakota State was one of the feel-good stories of the preseason and essentially replaced former special-teams pillar Albert McClellan. Board will now try to develop into a versatile depth option at linebacker in addition to maintaining his prominent role on special teams.

2019 positional outlook

No position group holds as much potential volatility right now as you can envision plausible scenarios for the Ravens keeping or losing any of Mosley, Suggs, and Smith. How DeCosta proceeds at this position will be fascinating when considering the other needs on each side of the ball, but you wouldn’t expect Baltimore to allow all three free agents to exit with so many unproven options waiting in the wings. Regardless of what happens with Suggs or Smith, the Ravens need to be looking for another edge rusher in this year’s draft because of the lack of progress from Bowser and Williams. Of course, Mosley accepting a lucrative payday elsewhere would instantly move inside linebacker up the list of positional needs.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts from Harbaugh press conference

Posted on 25 January 2019 by Luke Jones

With John Harbaugh meeting with the media on Friday after signing his new four-year contract, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Harbaugh confirmed his role hasn’t changed in terms of roster input, noting how the organization’s brass works together and has never operated with a silo mentality. The thought of Steve Bisciotti suddenly moving the goalposts as Eric DeCosta finally gets his chance as general manager never made much sense.

2. Lamar Jackson plans to throw with his receivers, but Harbaugh avoided specifics when asked if Jackson planned to work with a quarterback guru or coach before the offseason program. He does expect Jackson to work hard and “come back a better quarterback, skill-wise, than he was when he left.”

3. The possibility remains of adding an outside assistant to specialize in the passing game, but Harbaugh made clear not to shortchange Greg Roman’s knowledge in that area. One difference with his time as San Francisco’s coordinator, however, was the presence of Jim Harbaugh, who spent 15 years as an NFL quarterback.

4. Asked which position groups he’d like to improve, Harbaugh said what the Ravens “don’t want to do is take any steps back” and have to play catch-up. With tough roster decisions on the defensive side, however, they may need to give a little there to grow this offense meaningfully.

5. Any discussion about Marshal Yanda’s future should only relate to the possibility of him retiring. His $7 million salary and $10.125 million cap figure for 2019 remain more than reasonable for someone who’s still one of the best guards in football going into his 13th season.

6. Harbaugh didn’t want to entertain the possibility of C.J. Mosley departing while noting “there are limitations with the money.” Both sides are interested in a long-term deal, but at what cost? Deals for Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner are four years old, so Mosley will — and should — be aiming higher.

7. It’s only logical that Baltimore would want a backup quarterback with a similar skill set to Jackson with Harbaugh calling Robert Griffin III “a great option” and also alluding to the media speculation about Tyrod Taylor, whose current contract voids a few days after the Super Bowl.

8. Harbaugh said he expects Eric Weddle to return, but the safety backpedaling this week from his previous comments about not playing for any other team but the Ravens in 2019 leads you to believe his $6.5 million salary and $9.25 million cap figure are possible sticking points for DeCosta.

9. I can’t imagine Za’Darius Smith was thrilled about his sports hernia surgery coming to light, but that shouldn’t impact his free-agent market anyway. Tavon Young (sports hernia) and Tony Jefferson (ankle) also had minor procedures. Alex Lewis undergoing another shoulder surgery isn’t encouraging, however.

10. Jimmy Smith wasn’t mentioned during Friday’s press conference, but Harbaugh has long been a strong advocate for the veteran cornerback. Even so, he’ll be 31 in July and is scheduled to make $9.5 million with a $15.85 million cap figure. That’s not tenable with the many other areas to address.

11. The playoff loss wasn’t a big topic of conversation after the long delay with Harbaugh’s season-ending press conference, but the coach reiterated the Ravens were “outplayed” and “outcoached” before vowing next year’s offense will be “very diverse” and built “from the ground up.” It’ll definitely be interesting.

12. Asked about Joe Flacco’s value, Harbaugh said his former quarterback just needs some weapons and pass protection to be “one of the best quarterbacks in the league.” Harbaugh was being complimentary and hasn’t been the general manager, of course, but the irony of those words couldn’t have been thicker.

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Examining the Ravens’ 2019 class of free agents

Posted on 09 January 2019 by Luke Jones

The start of free agency is more than two months away, but the Ravens enter their most interesting offseason in recent memory after rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson helped lead them to the playoffs for the first time in four years.

The Ravens currently have an estimated 2019 salary cap commitment of roughly $163 million to 45 players (not including free agents or players recently signed to reserve-future deals), according to OverTheCap.com. The 2019 salary cap has not been set, but it is projected to rise from $177.2 million in 2018 to at least $188 million.

New general manager Eric DeCosta is likely to clear additional cap space by renegotiating or terminating the contracts of a few veteran players. Of course, that list will be headlined by former starting quarterback Joe Flacco, who will be traded or released after 11 seasons in Baltimore. A trade or pre-June 1 release will save $10.5 million in cap space while leaving $16 million in dead money on the 2019 cap, but Jackson’s $2.1 million cap number for next season makes that dead money easier to endure.

Cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr, wide receiver Michael Crabtree, and safeties Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson are other potential candidates to be cap casualties. Those decisions will depend on how drastically DeCosta wants to reshape the roster and reset the salary cap in his first year replacing Ozzie Newsome.

Below is a look at Baltimore’s 2019 class of free agents:

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

The Ravens will have the opportunity to retain any of the following unrestricted free agents before they can officially sign with any team beginning on March 13 at 4 p.m.

RB Buck Allen The former fourth-rounder went from leading Ravens backs in snaps in some early games to being a healthy scratch late in the season, but his special-teams ability helps his value.

TE Nick Boyle He doesn’t offer too much as a receiver, but Boyle’s blocking ability was a critical part of Greg Roman’s run-game schemes, making his return a bigger priority than you might think.

WR John Brown The speedy wideout says he’s open to returning, but he caught only 10 passes for 128 yards in Jackson’s eight starts, which certainly didn’t do any favors for his market value.

QB Robert Griffin III The former first-round pick was a helpful mentor to Jackson and is open to returning as his primary backup unless he receives an opportunity to potentially start elsewhere.

RB Ty Montgomery – Acquired at the trade deadline, Montgomery is good in pass protection and averaged 5.5 yards per carry in limited duty, but the Ravens may want to look elsewhere.

LB C.J. Mosley – The Ravens would certainly love to keep the four-time Pro Bowl selection, but they may need to make him the NFL’s highest-paid inside linebacker to do it, making this a tougher call.

LB Za’Darius Smith The versatile pass rusher isn’t the type of player Baltimore has typically re-signed to a big contract in the past, but other in-house options haven’t exactly stepped up.

LB Terrell Suggs The 36-year-old plans to return for a 17th NFL season and wants it to be with the Ravens, but his quiet second half of the season and asking price will be factors to consider.

DE Brent Urban The oft-injured lineman played in all 16 games and didn’t put up gaudy numbers, but a return on another cheap deal doesn’t appear out of the question.

TE Maxx Williams Though he never lived up to his second-round draft standing and makes minimal impact as a receiver, Williams developed into a useful blocker over the last two seasons.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

The following players have accrued three years of service and have expiring contracts. The Ravens can tender each with a restricted free agent offer, but other teams may then sign that player to an offer sheet. If that occurs, Baltimore has five days to match the offer and keep the aforementioned player. If the Ravens elect not to match, they would receive compensation based on which restricted tender they offered that player.

There are three different tenders — the values won’t be set until the 2019 salary cap is determined — that can be made: a first-round tender ($4.149 million in 2018) would award the competing team’s first-round selection, a second-round tender ($2.914 million in 2018) would fetch the competing team’s second-round pick, and a low tender ($1.907 million in 2018) would bring the competing team’s draft choice equal to the round in which the player was originally drafted. For example, a restricted free agent selected in the fifth round would be worth a fifth-round pick if given the low tender. If a player went undrafted originally and is given the low tender, the Ravens would only hold the right to match the competing offer sheet and would not receive any draft compensation if they chose not to.

With less-heralded restricted free agents, the Ravens frequently elect to forgo a tender and try to re-sign them at cheaper rates.

The original round in which each player was drafted is noted in parentheses:

RB Alex Collins (fifth) – Baltimore’s leading rusher in 2017, Collins once seemed like a good bet to receive a second-round tender, but a foot injury and disappointing production leave his future uncertain.

CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste (second) – The 6-foot-3 defensive back had a chance to make the team before breaking his arm late in the summer, but he could be back to compete for a spot on a cheap deal.

LB Patrick Onwuasor (undrafted) – A strong second half could prompt the Ravens to use a second-round tender on him to deter teams from pursuing him and to serve as insurance for Mosley.

DT Michael Pierce (undrafted) – Baltimore’s best defensive lineman this season, Pierce will likely receive the second-round tender and could be in line for a substantial payday after the 2019 campaign.

EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS

These players have less than three years of accrued service and can be tendered a contract for the league minimum based on their length of service in the league. If tendered, these players are not free to negotiate with other teams. Typically, the Ravens tender all exclusive-rights free agents with the thought that there’s nothing assured beyond the opportunity to compete for a spot. Exclusive-rights tenders are not guaranteed, meaning a player can be cut at any point without consequence to the salary cap.

WR Quincy Adeboyejo After missing the entire 2018 season, the 6-foot-3 wideout will compete for a roster spot after flashing from time to time in his first training camp in 2017.

RB Gus Edwards One of the great stories of 2018, the 238-pound back will go into his second season trying to maintain the starting job in a run-heavy offensive attack.

OL Jermaine Eluemunor The 2017 fifth-round pick spent a few weeks on the practice squad early in the season and will again be competing for a job on the 53-man roster

C Matt Skura The former practice-squad member started all 16 games at center, but it will be interesting to see if the Ravens seek an upgrade at this important position along the offensive line.

RB De’Lance Turner It’s easy to forget Turner received a practice-squad promotion before Edwards, but he’ll be fighting for a spot after spending most of the season on injured reserve.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts entering wild-card weekend

Posted on 05 January 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens preparing for their first playoff game in four years against the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The 68-yard touchdown highlighted a career passing day for Lamar Jackson in Week 16, but he also made some good decisions on check-downs and short throws in the first half. He’ll need more of that to offset the Chargers’ pass rush the second time around.

2. No matter what happens, the 21-year-old gaining playoff experience as a rookie is invaluable — and exciting — for the future. Joe Flacco posted a 50.8 passer rating with one touchdown and three interceptions in his first postseason run before eventually becoming “January Joe.” Be sure to keep that perspective.

3. Taking nothing away from the Ravens’ dominant defensive performance, seven of the eight Chargers penalties were committed by the offense with a few wiping out big gains and stalling any momentum for Philip Rivers. Like in Week 16, Clete Blakeman will be Sunday’s referee.

4. Za’Darius Smith will again be a key figure trying to exploit an underwhelming interior offensive line. The pending free agent has positioned himself for quite a payday with 8 1/2 sacks. Following up what he did in the first meeting against the Chargers — 1 1/2 sacks — will only strengthen that.

5. Los Angeles would be wise to spread the Ravens defense out more frequently and throw to running backs on the perimeter to try to offset the pass rush that made Rivers miserable. Chargers running backs did Rivers no favors in pass protection the first time around anyway.

6. Baltimore isn’t trending in the right direction in the red zone and on third down the last two weeks, going 1-for-7 and 7-for-27 in those respective categories. You can only expect other areas of the game to overcome those deficiencies for so long without substantial improvement.

7. How the Chargers fare against this running game the second time around will be fascinating, but the absences of linebacker Jatavis Brown and nose tackle Brandon Mebane loom large. You never want to test your depth against a rushing attack known for wearing down its opposition.

8. Mark Andrews led all rookie tight ends in receiving yards, yards per catch, yards after the catch, and first-down receptions, per Pro Football Focus. The third-round pick’s emergence as a big-play threat and reliable target has been critical when Jackson has needed to throw.

9. Only 12 players on the current roster were in the organization the last time the Ravens appeared in the playoffs four years ago, but Jimmy Smith was on injured reserve then and Flacco is now the backup quarterback. Things sure change quickly, don’t they?

10. Speaking of Flacco, his comment admitting the backup job is “not the most fun position in the world” predictably drew criticism from the same folks who’d likely bash him for not being a competitor if he said he enjoyed his new role. I won’t miss this kind of nonsensical criticism.

11. Justin Tucker was an AP first-team All-Pro selection while Marshal Yanda and C.J. Mosley were second team. Reporters receive much criticism — some deserved — for awards and Hall of Fame voting, but players, coaches, and fans are the ones voting for the Pro Bowl that again excluded the NFL’s best kicker.

12. Whether the Ravens advance or not, you just know Kansas City and New England coaches have spent more time on their bye week preparing for Baltimore’s rushing attack than for any other AFC team playing this weekend. It’s a scary matchup for anyone.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 22-10 win over Chargers

Posted on 24 December 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens moving closer to a playoff berth in their 22-10 win over the Los Angeles Chargers, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Remember how we expected Patrick Onwuasor to be unseated by Kenny Young? Onwuasor has 55 tackles, 5 1/2 sacks, three pass breakups, an interception, and two forced fumbles. His strip of Antonio Gates was as clutch as it gets. Not bad for a former rookie free agent from Portland State.

2. Lamar Jackson registered his lowest rushing total as a starter (39 yards) while throwing for a career-high 204 yards. How he responded immediately after the Chargers took the lead early in the third quarter was impressive. Dwell on the inconsistencies if you want, but traits are there to really like.

3. Tavon Young’s fumble return will be remembered, but Za’Darius Smith’s drive-ending sack on the previous possession was just as critical. The Chargers had possessed the ball for more than seven minutes and converted three third downs before Smith drove them out of field-goal range.

4. Mark Andrews has now registered more catches, receiving yards, and touchdowns than Todd Heap, Dennis Pitta, and Ed Dickson had as rookies combined. He isn’t fast by conventional measures, but his combination of good hands, physicality, and elusiveness has certainly worked at this level so far.

5. After a quiet game last week, Terrell Suggs didn’t fill up the stat sheet, but he registered a season-high eight pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. A more limited snap count would be ideal, but the slow development of Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams has much to do with that.

6. A total of 223 yards and three trips inside the red zone in the first half should net more than six points. Both the play-calling and execution left a lot to be desired, especially with two of those drives ending inside the 10-yard line.

7. After failing to collect an interception in seven straight games, the defense has four interceptions in the last three games. Brandon Carr’s pick on the first play from scrimmage set the tone while Marlon Humphrey’s put an exclamation point on the night. Wink Martindale insisted the interceptions would come eventually.

8. Until Gus Edwards’ 21-yard run with under two minutes to play, the Ravens had gained only 21 rushing yards on their first 10 carries of the second half. Kansas City held them to 3.6 yards per carry after the first quarter. Baltimore is going to need more through the air.

9. Running the ball on third-and-12 at your opponent’s 39 isn’t completely unheard of if you’re simply playing for a field goal, but Kenneth Dixon picking up 19 on the play is another example of how unconventional these last six games have been.

10. Speaking of weird, Willie Snead didn’t have a catch after leading the way in receptions and receiving yards the previous two weeks. In Jackson’s six starts, Snead has been Baltimore’s leading receiver three times. He had a total of one catch for eight yards in the other three contests.

11. I’m still not sure what to make of the timing of the John Harbaugh announcement or the Ravens making it without even having an extension completed, but a win over the Chargers goes a long way in defusing reaction. Of course, an upset loss to Cleveland would change perceptions dramatically.

12. Based on what I see on social media, debates about the offense’s sustainability and Jackson’s ceiling continue, but don’t forget to enjoy the journey. I don’t know where this will end or if Jackson will be Baltimore’s quarterback for the next decade, but the last six weeks have been fun.

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Ravens-Chargers: Five predictions for Saturday night

Posted on 21 December 2018 by Luke Jones

Anything short of a win over the Los Angeles Chargers will leave the Ravens needing something close to a Christmas miracle to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

A victory won’t come easy as Baltimore will be playing the most balanced team in the conference that still has much to play for itself with the AFC West and home-field advantage still up for grabs. The Chargers certainly present the biggest defensive test the Ravens’ revamped offense will have encountered since the bye week.

Frankly, this is the kind of game John Harbaugh’s team just hasn’t won in December in the post-Super Bowl XLVII era with several commendable efforts ending in heartbreak.

It’s time to go on the record as these AFC teams meet for the 12th time in the all-time regular-season series with the Ravens holding a 6-5 advantage. The Chargers were 4-3 playing Baltimore in San Diego, but the Ravens are 3-2 against them in the John Harbaugh era with the last meeting being a 29-26 Ravens win at M&T Bank Stadium in 2015.

Below are five predictions for Saturday:

1. John Brown will catch a long touchdown. Lamar Jackson is a limited passer right now despite his electrifying mobility that’s helped the Ravens to this point. However, the one area of the field where Jackson has had success is the short middle (under 15 yards through the air) where he’s posted a 98 passer rating and completed 77 percent of his attempts, per SharpFootballStats.com. The problem is the Chargers defense has been very effective in that area, ranking first in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric against short passes and first against tight ends. However, the Chargers rank last in DVOA against deep passes over 15 yards in the air. Jackson is due to connect on a long one, and opportunities will be there.

2. Chargers running back Melvin Gordon will collect 125 total yards and a touchdown with much damage coming on passes. Los Angeles went 3-0 without the Pro Bowl running back, which speaks to how deep this offense is. The returning Gordon is averaging 5.2 yards per carry, but the biggest challenge he presents against a superb run defense is his ability to make plays as a receiver out of the backfield. Two weeks ago, Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes completed 10 passes to running backs in an effort to offset Baltimore’s pass rush, and I expect Philip Rivers to do the same. The difference is Gordon is more dangerous in the open field than any of the Chiefs’ current backs.

3. The Ravens will be held under 160 rushing yards for the first time since Week 9. This ground game is too good to be completely shut down at this point, especially with Greg Roman’s reputation for consistently adding new wrinkles. However, the Chargers do possess the best run defense the Ravens have seen since before the bye, and rookie safety Derwin James is the type of player who just might be able to bottle up Jackson more than previous teams could. The Chiefs held Baltimore to an ordinary 3.6 yards per carry after being gashed in the first quarter, which is why it’s critical for the Ravens to grab an early lead while the Chargers adjust to the shock of Jackson’s speed and this run game.

4. Los Angeles edge rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram will combine for three sacks. Bosa and Ingram will give Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr. problems, but how they hold the edge will be crucial this week with Jackson’s ability to run. Meanwhile, Terrell Suggs and Matt Judon will try to get to Rivers, but the veteran has the ninth-fastest average time to throw from snap to release in the NFL and will use quick passes to Keenan Allen, who poses a challenge in the slot. The short week is also a factor as Judon has nursed a minor knee injury and Suggs was already quiet against Tampa Bay after playing a season-high 70 snaps in Kansas City. The Ravens need pressure from Za’Darius Smith inside.

5. More balance and extra rest will be the difference for the Chargers as the Ravens fall 26-17. I don’t believe this is a bad matchup for Baltimore as Marlon Humphrey and Jimmy Smith have enough size to combat the tall Los Angeles receivers, but I’m not confident enough in a one-dimensional offense producing enough points to offset the times when the Ravens defense is unable to get stops like we saw in the fourth quarter and overtime in Kansas City. The Chargers haven’t been held under 20 points in a game all season, and the revamped Ravens haven’t shown the ability to score into the high 20s without at least one touchdown from the defense or special teams. A cross-country trip on a short week also does veterans and a rookie quarterback no favors. It will be a close one throughout, but a late fourth-quarter touchdown pass from Rivers to Allen will put the game away for the Chargers and leave the Ravens scoreboard watching for the rest of the weekend.

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Ravens-Saints: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 20 October 2018 by Luke Jones

Sunday isn’t just an enticing showdown between the top scoring offense and best scoring defense in the NFL, but it serves as a measuring stick for both the Ravens and New Orleans.

Allowing a minuscule 12.8 points per game and ranking at or near the top in virtually every notable category, the Baltimore defense has faced the fourth-easiest slate of offenses so far this season, according to Football Outsiders. Meanwhile, the Saints are scoring a whopping 36.0 points per game against the second-easiest schedule of defenses to this point.

Regardless of the competition, each group’s body of work is very impressive, but this matchup offers the opportunity to prove just how great they truly are.

It’s time to go on the record as these teams meet for just the seventh time with the Ravens holding a 5-1 advantage and a 3-1 record in Baltimore. As has been mentioned throughout the week, Drew Brees is 0-4 in his career against the Ravens, the only NFL team the future Hall of Fame quarterback hasn’t defeated over his 18 seasons.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Brees will throw his 500th and 501st career touchdowns as well as his first two interceptions of the year. The 39-year-old is off to a brilliant start with a 122.3 passer rating through five games, but he’s yet to face a defense quite like the Ravens, who are allowing just 6.0 yards per passing attempt. Marlon Humphrey’s status could be pivotal, but Jimmy Smith should be ready for a bigger workload with two games under his belt if the former can’t go. How nickel corner Tavon Young holds up defending Cameron Meredith or even Michael Thomas in the slot will be critical, but the Ravens will mix their coverages enough to force Brees into making a few more mistakes than usual.

2. Willie Snead will lead the Ravens in receptions and catch a touchdown against his former team. The slot receiver downplayed the significance of this one, but you know it would mean plenty to show well after his nightmare 2017 that followed 141 catches and 1,879 yards in the previous two seasons. Twenty of Snead’s 30 receptions — tied with Michael Crabtree for the team lead — have gone for first downs this season as he’s been exactly what Ozzie Newsome and John Harbaugh envisioned. The Saints have had significant problems at the slot cornerback position since the injury to Patrick Robinson, setting up Snead to gain some payback with his second score of the year.

3. Saints running back Alvin Kamara will score the first second-half touchdown of 2018 against Baltimore. Much was made about Kamara receiving only nine touches in Mark Ingram’s return to action two weeks ago, but the former is averaging 9.2 yards per reception, which is prime Ray Rice territory out of the backfield. The Ravens have covered running backs well so far this season, but Kamara presents a different kind of challenge who will offset the efforts of the pass rush at times and test tackling ability. Baltimore is bound to give up a post-halftime touchdown at some point, and Kamara will get loose for a score to put that impressive streak to an end.

4. Za’Darius Smith will collect another sack for one of three total for the Ravens. The key to slowing Brees and the New Orleans offense is disguise and deception, which is what Wink Martindale has so masterfully used to this point in his early tenure as defensive coordinator. Because Brees gets the ball away so quickly, you cannot count on edge rushers to get to him and need your interior linemen to hit him or at least make him move his feet to throw off his timing. Saints left guard Andrus Peat is out and right guard Larry Warford is questionable, which should make things easier for Smith, Brent Urban, and Willie Henry. The inside rushers will do just enough to make life difficult for Brees.

5. Joe Flacco and the passing game will be the difference in a 27-23 Ravens victory. The sexy story all week has understandably been about the Baltimore defense trying to slow the Saints offense, but New Orleans ranks 30th in the league in pass defense and the Ravens have been a top 10 passing attack so far this season. Talented Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore may contain one side of the field, but Flacco should be able to make plays against the rest of the New Orleans secondary for a productive day. Brees and Saints head coach Sean Payton having the bye week to try to crack the code that’s been the Ravens defense does make you take pause, but home-field advantage and a more balanced roster will make the difference in a game that has the potential to be a regular-season classic.

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

Posted on 17 October 2018 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


(Screen shot courtesy of NFL Game Pass)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 21-0 win over Tennessee

Posted on 16 October 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens improving to 4-2 in their 21-0 win at Tennessee, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Ravens defenders said all the right things about Dean Pees last week, but the group’s post-game celebration with Wink Martindale reflected how much the record-setting shutout in front of their old defensive coordinator really meant. They wanted to prove they’re a better defense now.

2. What gives Za’Darius Smith a slight edge over Terrell Suggs as the Ravens’ best pass rusher? His ability to pressure from the inside is so crucial with today’s quarterbacks getting the ball out as quickly as possible. He continues to be on the Pernell McPhee contract year plan.

3. One of the undersold aspects of this terrific defensive start is the depth the Ravens continue to use as 20 players took defensive snaps against the Titans. Rotating defensive linemen and edge rushers have long been common practices, but the Ravens are doing this at every level of their defense.

4. Getting Michael Crabtree involved early was a prudent move to help his confidence after last week’s performance, but remember this is a veteran who caught 25 touchdowns from 2015-17. The real test will be the next time he has a chance to make a defining catch in the closing minutes.

5. Converting 10 of the first 11 third downs of the game was impressive enough, but the Ravens moved the chains on four requiring nine or more yards. You want to avoid those third-and-long situations, but being able to convert some is a mark of a good offense.

6. The running game was functional, but I roll my eyes when someone praises the final run-pass balance as the key to winning. Building a 21-0 lead was the blueprint for running that frequently. Running more effectively remains critical as Baltimore averaged 2.4 yards per carry in the first half.

7. The 14th shutout in team history was aided by the Ravens only playing 44 defensive snaps, an incredibly low number. The defense had much to do with that, of course, but credit the offense for putting together three drives of seven or more minutes each. That’s complementary football.

8. Joe Flacco had a good day, particularly on third down, but his interception on a deep throw down the middle to Willie Snead late in the first half was a little too aggressive with three timeouts and a minute remaining. Titans safety Kevin Byard’s catch also should have been reviewed.

9. Cyrus Jones recorded a 26-yard punt return in his Ravens debut, but what a day to be able to share the field with former Gilman teammate and Titans kick returner Darius Jennings. I also liked seeing Chris Moore back as the kick returner even though he received only one opportunity.

10. Plays like the unnecessary roughness penalty for pushing Titans punter Brett Kern in the back late in the first half are preventing Matt Judon from taking the step from pretty good player to really good player. It happens too often and isn’t smart football.

11. Gus Edwards wasn’t spectacular, but 42 yards on 10 carries should warrant some more opportunities. He runs well for a 238-pound back and certainly brings more physicality to this running game.

12. Remember those old Ramon Harewood-Antonio Brown comparisons from the 2010 draft? A healthy scratch in Week 6, Tyus Bowser was selected 15 spots before JuJu Smith-Schuster in the 2017 second round. The difference this time is Smith-Schuster wasn’t an unknown while playing a position of great need. I’m just saying.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 12-9 overtime loss at Cleveland

Posted on 09 October 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens falling to 3-2 following the ugly 12-9 overtime loss to Cleveland, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Baltimore has had past performances like Sunday’s at FirstEnergy Stadium, but the difference was you could always count on a lousy football team to “Brown” it up at the most critical moment. The Browns were far from perfect, but Baker Mayfield clearly makes them a better team.

2. You hate criticizing a group that surrendered only 12 points, but the two-minute defense left a lot to be desired, allowing a 78-yard touchdown drive at the end of the first half, a 38-yard drive in the final minute of regulation, and the 65-yard game-ending drive in overtime.

3. Had anyone heard of Derrick Willies before his 39-yard reception on third-and-8 in overtime? The rookie free agent caught a combined 40 passes in three collegiate seasons at Texas Tech and Iowa and hadn’t caught an NFL pass before the fourth quarter.

4. Arguably worse was Duke Johnson’s 15-yard run on the next play that put the Browns at the Baltimore 28. It was a less-than-stellar showing from Tyus Bowser and C.J. Mosley on that run since Cleveland kicker Greg Joseph wasn’t inspiring any confidence that he’d make a longer kick.

5. I’ve written extensively about the running game this week, but Lamar Jackson leads the team in yards per carry (min. 15 rushes), making it understandable why the Ravens want to keep him involved. Still, bringing him on the field for an inside rush on first-and-16 in overtime made little sense.

6. The defense recorded five sacks and a total of 27 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. The Ravens allowed Mayfield to escape the pocket a few times, but the pass rush bounced back from a quiet performance in Pittsburgh. Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith were particularly good in that area.

7. Joe Flacco was among those complaining about the illegal block in the back call on Chris Moore that wiped away Alex Collins’ 17-yard run in overtime, but it was avoidable just like Matt Judon’s that canceled out a touchdown against Denver. You have to see what you’re hitting.

8. Anthony Levine continues to play terrific football after recording three pass breakups for the second straight week. He’s a good example of how using creativity with sub packages can work to your advantage. Levine isn’t a pure safety, linebacker, or cornerback, but he’s a good football player.

9. John Harbaugh acknowledged not planning to use Willie Henry for 39 defensive snaps in his return from August hernia surgery, but he played well, registering a sack and another tackle. He provides another inside pass-rushing option to rotate with Smith and Brent Urban.

10. The Ravens lead the NFL in scoring defense and rank in the top five in a number of other categories, but they’ve recorded just six takeaways in their first five games after having 10 in the first two contests last year. I suspect that’s going to change sooner than later.

11. Browns cornerback Denzel Ward was responsible for taking as many as 10 points off the board from the Ravens with his goal-line interception and field goal block. He, Mayfield, and defensive end Myles Garrett sure look poised to make Cleveland an interesting team over the next few years.

12. Watching a 9-9 contest in the final seconds of overtime brought memories of the only tie in Ravens history, which came against Philadelphia at Memorial Stadium on Nov. 16, 1997. I recall leaving that day as fans from both teams argued over which team stunk more. Both finished 6-9-1.

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