Ravens eliminated from playoff contention with 31-27 loss to Steelers

PITTSBURGH, PA – The Ravens needed to win out in order to win the AFC North and clinch a playoff berth, but they fell 31-27 to the Steelers on Sunday and are now officially eliminated from the postseason.

The Ravens had a 20-10 lead entering the fourth quarter, but could not stop a Pittsburgh offense that scored 21 points in the final 15 minutes of the game. That would end up being the difference that the Steelers needed to win on Christmas Day and seal Baltimore’s fate. 

Pittsburgh’s win officially knocks the Ravens out of the playoffs. The Steelers (11-5) are now two games ahead of the Ravens (8-7) in the AFC North standings, so Pittsburgh will still have the edge over Baltimore regardless of what happens in the final week of the regular season.

“Obviously a disappointing, bitter loss,” Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said after the game. “[The Steelers] went down the field [in the fourth quarter] and scored three touchdowns. [They made] big plays, and got the ball in the end zone, which was obviously the big difference in the game. I wish them all the best in the playoffs.”

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The Ravens has trouble stopping Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell, who finished the game with 122 rushing yards. Credit: Newsday
The Ravens will now miss the playoffs for the third time in four seasons after winning Super Bowl 47 in 2013.

As usual, the Ravens and the Steelers battled to the very end. At the end of the third quarter, the Ravens had a 17-10 lead. While Pittsburgh was able to score touchdowns in each of their final three offensive drives, the Ravens still managed to score 10 points in the fourth quarter. With 1:18 to go in the game, Joe Flacco connected with fullback Kyle Juszczyk, who got in the end zone to give the Ravens a 27-24 lead. However, the Steelers got the ball back and scored the game-winning touchdown with nine seconds left on a four-yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger to receiver Antonio Brown. Brown made the catch on a slant-route and had to extend his arm in order to get the ball over the goal line. It took replay to confirm the score, but the video showed that Brown’s arm had just the right amount of distance to count as a touchdown.

Brown was able to have a big day in the absence of Baltimore corner-back Jimmy Smith. Brown finished the game with 10 receptions for 96 yards that included the game-winning score.

“Our offense gave us 27 points,” linebacker Terrell Suggs said after the game. “Usually when our offense scores 27 points and we’re winning in the fourth quarter, it works out in our favor. It is very disappointing in that fashion, but you have to respect the Steelers. We had 1:18, and they did a good job of not being denied.”

The Ravens had five offensive drives in the first half, and they got into Pittsburgh territory each time. But, they only had six points to show for it after the fist 30 minutes of the game. In the first half, Baltimore let three points slip away when they failed to kick a field goal as punter Sam Koch could not catch a snap from long-snapper Morgan Cox. The ball was snapped high, and Koch could not get the ball down for kicker Justin Tucker, leaving three points on the scoreboard.

“There were 5-10 points that were left out there and could have made the difference,” Flacco said after the game. “You’re are given your opportunities but we were just a little bit short.”

Next week the Ravens will battle the Bengals (5-9-1) in Cincinnati on New Year’s day. The game is essentially meaningless, but both teams will be playing for pride. Even in these meaningless week 17 games, there are certainly some things to be on the lookout for. There will be rookies looking to build off of their first seasons, impending free agents trying to prove why they are deserving of a new contract, and bubble players looking to prove that they have a place on the team.

With Baltimore’s elimination from the postseason for the second consecutive year, next week’s game could be the springboard for what is sure to be an interesting offseason for the Ravens, as several big decisions could be on the horizon.

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Ravens lose season finale to Bengals 27-10

CINCINNATI, OH –  For the fifth straight year, the Cincinnati Bengals defeated the Baltimore Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium, this time wining 27-10 on New Year’s Day.

“We did not play well,” head coach John Harbaugh said after the game. “Our emotional level was not where it has been in the past, and I think it has to do with what it happens last week. … It was definitely our worst game of the year.”

The Ravens finish the season 8-8 and will miss the playoffs for the third time in four seasons since winning Super Bowl 47. The Bengals go 6-9-1 and will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2010. The Pittsburgh Steelers officially win the AFC North at 10-6, and will be the AFC’s #3 seed in the playoffs. The Browns will finish in last place in the division with a record of 1-15.

Even without star wide receiver A.J. Green and running back Jeremy Hill, the Bengals had no trouble getting their offense going in the first quarter. Quarterback Andy Dalton completed his first 10 passes of the game, one of those being a touchdown pass to C.J. Uzomah. Running back Rex Burkhead scored on Cincinnati’s first offensive possession on a 5-yard run, and at the end of the first quarter the Bengals had jumped out to a 14-3 lead. Burkhead finished the game with 119 rushing yards, making it the third game in a row that the Ravens defense allowed a 100-yard rusher.

The Ravens’ run defense simply collapsed in the final quarter of the season after being so stellar the first 12 games.

After the Bengals kicked a field goal on their first possession of the second quarter, the Ravens had an opportunity to make it a one-score game. The Ravens had a first-and-goal on Cincinnati’s 2-yard line, but when Joe Flacco tired to throw a pass to tight end Dennis Pitta, he was intercepted by Bengals safety Shawn Williams. That turnover lead to a Bengals field goal before the half, and the Ravens had dug themselves into a 20-3 hole.

Not much occurred in the third quarter, but the Ravens finally got into the end zone early in the fourth quarter. Flacco found receiver Breshad Perriman, who raced down the left sideline and scored what appeared to be a 40-yard touchdown. However, upon reviewing the play, the call was reversed when replay showed that Perriman’s right elbow touched the ground before he reached over the goal line with the ball. After the review, The Ravens got the ball on the Bengals’ 1-yard line, and got rookie running back Kenneth Dixon marched into the end zone to score his second rushing touchdown of the season.

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Ravens running back Kenneth Dixon ran for 44 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries. Credit: Baltimore Ravens.

On Baltimore’s next drive, the Ravens could not convert a fourth down play and gave the Bengals the ball back on the Baltimore 25-yard line. The Bengals answered with a six-play drive that ended with a five-yard run from Burkhead, which would be the final nail in the coffin for the Ravens. After this score, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh started pulling some of the offensive starters, including Flacco and receiver Steve Smith Sr., who was playing in his final career game.

“Yeah, that’s it,” Smith Sr. said to a CBS reporter after the game upon being asked if Sunday was indeed his final game. “At some point, it comes to an end. I have a beautiful wife, and four kids that need their dad. I need my kids, so I’m going home to Charlotte to be with my family.”

Smith Sr. finished the game with just three receptions for 34 yards. He finishes his 16-year career with 1,031 receptions (12th in NFL history), 14,731 yards (seventh in NFL history) and 81 touchdowns.

Smith’s absence next season will be one of several holes the Ravens will be looking to fill as the offseason begins. The Ravens did improve from last season, winning three more games. However, the Ravens came up short of their goal of making the playoffs. They finished 2-6 on the road, losing their final six road games. They switched offensive coordinators five games into the season, and the play-calling did not improve. Not only are there changes on the roster looming, but perhaps on the coaching staff as well with there already being rumblings that offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg could be fired.

As mentioned, the Steelers will represent the AFC North in the playoffs as the #3 seed. They will host the #6 seeded Miami Dolphins at Heinz Field next weekend. Earlier this season, the Dolphins defeated the Steelers 30-15 in Miami. Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi ran for 204 yards in that game.

As for the Ravens, the offseason begins this week, with the annual “State of the Ravens” press conference taking place in the coming days. With not making the playoffs three out of the past four seasons, it will be interesting to hear what Harbaugh, General Manager Ozzie Newsome and owner Steve Bisciotti have to say about the future of the Baltimore Ravens.

 

A Note to my Followers – Big Changes Coming Soon

Ever since I was a child, I always wanted to have my own sports blog. I made that dream a reality two years ago after changing my major from accounting to mass communications at Bloomsburg University. Since then, I have been writing and “podcasting” as often as possible to build up this blog with content.

While I think that I have done a great job of being Mr. sports reporter for two years, I have come to the realization that just having a blog named after me is simply not enough to build a decent, loyal following. Yes, its great to have my friends and family reading my posts and supporting me (and to those who have followed my work ever since I started this blog, thank you – you know who you are), but what I am trying to do ultimately is reach an entire fan-base. To do that, I am not sure that having a website simply titled “The Jake McDonnell Sports blog” is going to be enough.

Unless you are an established sports reporter that has hundreds of thousands of followers, it is difficult to gain a following with a generic name. You need creativity; you need a brand. So, ever since I got home from Bloomsburg two weeks ago, I have been thinking of a new name for my sports blog & podcast that will be more than just a name, but a brand.

With all of this being said, in the coming weeks there will be significant changes coming to this sports blog. These changes include and are not limited to:

  • A new title, with a new webpage address
  • A new logo
  • A team of writers other than myself who will be writing and producing content as they please, with me being the editor-in-chief (Don’t worry, I will still be posting as often as possible along with everyone else).
  • New social media accounts (Also don’t worry, I am keeping mine – there will be new accounts for the blog under a new name)

I know that I am throwing a lot at you right now, but just bear with me. I am in the process of getting everything set up for the re-launch, and it is my hope to have everything “done” before I go back to Bloomsburg in three weeks. What my followers need to do in the mean time is stay up-to-date with my social media accounts, where the links to the everything will be provided.

Once again, I want to thank all of you who have been keeping up with my content. You have no idea how much I appreciate it. It does not go unnoticed. At the same time, I cannot tell you how excited I am to get the ball rolling with this re-launch. Here’s to everything this blog & podcast has accomplished so far, and here’s to building and expanding as 2017 begins.

-Jake

If Ravens want to make playoffs, coaching staff, Flacco must stay out of their own way

BALTIMORE, MD – The Ravens may have won their game against the Eagles on Sunday, but they made it extremely difficult on themselves. Up 10 points with six minutes left to go in the game, the Ravens had the ball on Philadelphia’s 11-yard line. Instead of running the ball and letting the clock run down, the Ravens decided to throw the ball. Quarterback Joe Flacco just needed to complete a pass and keep the clock running, so he threw the ball to his most reliable receiver, Steve Smith Sr.

The pass was intercepted by Eagles linebacker Jordan Hicks.

Philadelphia answered the turnover by kicking a field goal to make it a seven-point game with 2:22 on the clock. How did the Ravens offense answer, you ask? By going three-and-out and punting the ball back to Philadelphia, who had 1:50 left on the clock and a timeout to work with. Quarterback Carson Wentz led the Eagles right down the field, and the Eagles scored a touchdown with four seconds left in the game.

With nothing to lose, and no realistic shot of making the playoffs, Eagles head coach Doug Pederson elected to go for the two-point conversion in an attempt to win the game. The attempt was unsuccessful, giving the Ravens the 27-26 win. By a thread.

I don’t even want to call the margin that Baltimore won by a thread. I have too much respect for threads. More like a hair. A leg hair.

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The Ravens coaching staff on the sideline, including head coach John Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. Credit: WNSTr

The funny thing is, the entire heart-stopping six minutes of the game could have all been avoided. When the Ravens had the ball in the red-zone, they could have easily run the ball three times in a row. There is a good chance that they could have picked up a first down just by handing the ball off three times. In the case that they do not pick up a first down, then okay, they kick a field goal and go up 13 points with roughly four minutes left in the game. Even if Philadelphia is able to score a touchdown on their next drive, the Ravens would still get the ball back and would likely have enough time to run out the clock.

As we all know, that is not how it played out. Instead, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg and head coach John Harbaugh allowed Flacco to run the pass play, and Flacco ended up throwing a terrible pass that was intercepted.

“I didn’t see the guy,” Flacco said after the game.

Wow Joe, you didn’t? Hello, captain obvious.

As soon as Flacco got that play call, he should have changed the play at the line of scrimmage. Flacco admitted that he was a little selfish, trying to throw his third touchdown pass of the afternoon. Come on Joe. You’re a ninth-year veteran quarterback. Put the team above yourself and try to win the game instead of trying to put up points for your very few fantasy owners. If your offensive coordinator gives you a stupid play call, you’re allowed to say “screw you” and change it.

What’s so concerning about this situation is that both Flacco and Harbaugh are in their ninth seasons; they should know better. Harbaugh even called it “the worst play call ever” after the game, and took responsibility for the miscue.

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Quarterback Joe Flacco must take better care of the football if the Ravens are to make the playoffs. Credit: USA Today

“I feel in that situation that we got a little greedy,” Harbaugh said. “We should have played it a little more conservatively.”

No matter who has been running the offense in 2016, the play-calling by both Marc Trestman and Mornhinweg has been a problem for the Ravens. This coaching staff has not utilized their run game all season, and they should have on that fourth quarter drive. It’s not like the Ravens weren’t having any success running the football on Sunday; Terrance West had 77 yards on 14 carries, averaging 5.9 yards-per-carry. With West having a game like that, there is no reason to not give him the ball in that situation. The coaching staff’s refusal of running the football has been a head-scratcher all season.

One could argue that the coaching has costed the Ravens games, particularly in October when the Ravens went through a four-game losing streak. The Ravens lost their week 4 game against the Raiders 28-27 after Harbaugh accepted a penalty that he should have declined. On an Oakland third down play,  a Raiders offensive guard was flagged for unnecessary roughness. If Harbaugh declined the penalty it would have been fourth down and the Raiders would have had to kick a field goal, meaning Baltimore would still have the lead. Instead, Harbaugh accepted the penalty, the Raiders immediately converted the third down, and then scored the winning touchdown.

The next week, the Ravens lost their game against the Redskins, 16-10. In that game, after running an unsuccessful draw play on 3rd-and-11, the Ravens lined up to kick a field goal. But something was fishy; Justin Tucker, a right-footed kicker, lined up on the left-hand side. The ball was snapped to Tucker, who threw an incomplete pass. The Ravens threw an easy three points in the garbage can there; no way to sugarcoat it.

Yes, the Ravens have won six of their last eight games, but the coaching issues have popped up here and there all season. This team is looking to win their final two games and win the AFC North. If the Ravens want to do that, they cannot get in their own way and make things harder on themselves. They may have been able to get away with their miscues against a team like the Eagles, but that won’t happen against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Christmas Day. It also won’t happen against teams they would face in the playoffs, like the New England Patriots, Kansas City Chiefs or the Raiders.

This game on Christmas may very well decide whether or not the Ravens make the playoffs. The Steelers have won five straight games and lead the Ravens by a game in the division. Their offense is extremely high-powered, with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le’Veon Bell and receiver Antonio Brown. It is still a possibility that the Ravens are going to be without shut-down corner-back Jimmy Smith, so the Steelers could have a big day on offense if the Ravens defense does not come to play.

I changed my focus to the defense in that last paragraph, but my point is that if the Ravens defense struggles on Sunday, the offense and the coaching staff will need to make minimal mistakes if they want to walk out of Pittsburgh with a win. At this point, I doubt that they can do that. Dating back to the 2014 playoffs, the Ravens have won four straight games against the Steelers. Getting that fifth straight win appears to be a daunting task, because the Ravens not only have to overcome the Steelers, but also themselves.

Are the Ravens capable of winning in Pittsburgh? Absolutely. They have won their last two games at Heinz Field and are not intimidated of playing there. But, Mornhinweg appears to be throwing darts when it comes to play-calling, and Flacco is prone to making crucial mistakes in big-time situations. The Ravens have the talent to beat Pittsburgh, but they need to get out of their own way if they are going to do that.

 

Ravens’ Report Card for 27-26 win over Eagles

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Ravens corner-back Jerraud Powers knocks down what would have been the game-winning two point conversion for the Eagles. Credit: Newsday
BALTIMORE, MD –

Quarterback: C+

Joe Flacco looked better than he did in New England, but not great. Flacco attempted 22 less passes than he did against the Patriots, and did a better job of evening out the distribution between the running backs and receivers. Flacco is still checking down more than you would like to see, but that’s his M.O. He threw two pretty touchdown passes to Steve Smith Sr. and Kamar Aiken, as well as a nice 54-yarder to Mike Wallace. He did throw a dumb interception in the fourth quarter that led to an Eagles field goal, but the Ravens should not have been calling a pass play in that situation.

Running backs: B+

The Ravens finally had some balance with their offensive play-calling, running the ball 24 times and passing 30 times. Terrance West finished the game with well over 100 yards of total offense – 77 yards on 13 carries and 45 receiving yards on four catches. West’s longest run was a 41-yard dash in the third quarter. Kenneth Dixon was not as involved as he was last week, only rushing nine times for 33 yards. He made the most of his playing time, rushing for a 16-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter.

Receivers: C+ 

The top three receivers on the depth chart – Smith Sr, Mike Wallace and Aiken – each finished the game with just two receptions apiece. It has gotten to the point where the receivers have been complaining about not getting enough targets, and rightfully so. Aiken found the end zone on the first drive of the game with a five-yard reception from Flacco. Smith Sr. hauled in a 34-yard reception that gave Flacco his second touchdown pass of the game, but he also dropped a few perfectly-thrown passes to him. Tight end Dennis Pitta caught two passes as well, and Breshad Perriman was once again a non-factor, with just two targets that included a drop.

Offensive Line: B-

It was an average game for the offensive line. At times, the line opened holes for the Ravens running backs, and other times the Ravens tried to run the ball but were stopped behind the line of scrimmage. For the most part, Flacco had enough time to drop back and throw without any significant issues, but he was also sacked three times and fumbled the ball while running from a collapsed pocket. For an offensive line that has featured the same starting five for five games in a row now, the Ravens will take what they can get after not having that stability earlier in the season.

Defensive Line: D-

For the second week in a row, the Ravens’ top-ranked run defense lost its mojo. Ryan Matthews finished the game with 128 rushing yards on 20 carries, which comes out to 6.4 yards-per-carry. That mark alone killed the Ravens, and the Eagles finished the game with 169 rushing yards. For a defensive line that has prided themselves in stopping the run all season, it was certainly a major disappointment to see the Eagles have as much success running the ball as they had on Sunday.

Linebackers: D

The linebackers did not fare much better than the defensive line, if at all. Philadelphia’s running backs ran all over Zachary Orr and C.J. Mosley. It got to the point where the secondary was just as involved with stopping the run as the front seven was. There was a lack of a pass rush, as the defense finished with just one sack by Elvis Dumervil. A lot of the throws by Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz were screens, and the receivers of those screens had decent YAC.

Secondary: B-

Even without Jimmy Smith, the secondary was arguably Baltimore’s defensive unit that put on the best performance on Sunday. The Eagles’ passing attack is mediocre, to put it nicely, but Wentz was limited to just 170 passing yards on 22 completions. The longest play the Ravens gave up on defense went for 24 yards. The secondary also made a game-winning stop on the goal-line as corner-back Jerraud Powers batted down a pass intended for receiver Jordan Matthews. Had that two-point attempt been caught, the Eagles would have had a one-point lead with four seconds left in the game. The return of Smith is crucial going forward, as the Ravens will be facing Antonio Brown and A.J. Green in the next two weeks.

Special Teams: B-

Even after releasing Devin Hester and activating Michael Campanero to return punts, the Ravens have not solved their problems returning kicks. Rookie receiver Chris Moore made two mistakes returning kicks; the first one being the decision to run the ball out of the end-zone before being tackled at the 12-yard line. The second mistake was fumbling the ball on a kickoff return. Luckily, the Ravens were able to recover the fumble, but Moore cannot be making those mistakes. Yes, he is a rookie and does not have much experience returning kicks, but come on. Hold on to the football, and kneel the ball in the end zone when the kick is halfway in the paint. Justin Tucker kicked two field goals, one being a 53-yarder that was his tenth kick of 50+ yards this season, which ties an NFL record.

Coaching: C-

The coaching staff had been calling a decent game, but blew it in the fourth quarter. The Ravens had a 10-point lead with six minutes to go in the game, and the offense was in the red zone. On 1st and 10 from the 11-yard line, the Ravens could have run the ball and run the clock down for about two minutes. Instead, the Ravens chose to throw the ball, and Flacco threw a horrible pass that was intercepted by Eagles linebacker Jordan Hicks. Hicks returned the interception 34 yards, and the Eagles kicked a field goal before scoring a touchdown on the next drive.

That play call almost cost the Ravens the game and their season. They had a 10-point lead and could have extended that lead to at least 13 points if they had just run the ball. It is not rocket science. The heavy reliance on the pass has been an issue all season. It almost seems like offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg refuses to run the ball. Come on, man. Be smart. Run the football.

The Ravens may have been able to survive that mistake against Philadelphia, but it will cost them against teams like the Steelers, who they play next week on Christmas day.