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’ 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.

 

Analyzing the Orioles’ acquisition of Welington Castillo

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Castillo, while playing for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2016. Credit: MLB Trade Rumors

BALTIMORE, MD – After a quiet trip to the 2016 MLB Winter Meetings, the Baltimore Orioles made their first major signing of the offseason on Thursday, agreeing to terms with free agent catcher Welington “Beef” Castillo.

After Castillo passed a physical on Friday (which seems to not be the easiest thing in the world for free agents coming to the Orioles), the deal became official. Castillo’s contract is a reported one-year, $6 million deal that includes a $7 million option for 2018, according to MLB Network insider Jon Heyman.

With the signing of Castillo, the Matt Wieters era in Baltimore appears to be over. Wieters and his agent Scott Boras are willing to wait an extended period of time for a ball-club to make Wieters one of the highest (if not the highest) paid catcher in baseball. The Orioles were not willing to wait, signing the 29-year-old Castillo to a cheaper, shorter-term contract.

With Wieters already being over the age of 30 and seeking a long-term deal, it made sense for the O’s to go another direction. It is no secret that Wieters has been a favorite in Baltimore, both my the fans and the Orioles themselves. However, after being named the #2 prospect in baseball by MiLB in 2009, it is fair to say that Wieters never lived up to that bill. A lot of that criticism is unfair, as only so many of the highest-rated prospects continue to have the same amount of success in the majors. Wieters was a solid starting catcher for the Orioles for well over half a decade, amassing a stellar four All-Star nominations and two Gold Gloves. He should continue to have success wherever he lands next.

Castillo, a native of the Dominican Republic, was signed by the Chicago Cubs as an amateur free agent in 2004. He made his major league debut with Chicago in August 2010, and was Chicago’s starting catcher from 2013 to early 2015. In May of the 2015 season Castillo was traded to the Seattle Mariners, and he only played in six games there before being traded to the Diamondbacks. Mark Trumbo, a current free agent who played for the Orioles in 2016, was one of the D-Backs players traded for Castillo. After Castillo was traded to Arizona, he was their starting catcher for the remainder of the 2015 season and all of last season.

Castillo does not have the resume that Wieters does. He has never made an All-Star game, but last season he outperformed Wieters in multiple offensive categories. In 2016 Castillo led Wieters in batting average (.264 to .243), doubles (24-17), RBI (68-66), and on-base percentage (.322-.302). Also unlike Wieters, Castillo has never missed time for a significant injury. Wieters missed essentially a calendar year after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2014.

“We liked Welington, we liked what he did the last few years and we like what he does going forward,” said executive vice president Dan Duquette. “We took a long look at comparing all the catchers who were available on the market and we liked Welington’s skills, particularly what he’s done the last couple of years and our projections look good on Welington.”

From a statistical standpoint, the Orioles can expect about the same amount of production from Castillo as they got from Wieters. It was smart to give a catcher around the age of 30 a short-term contract, which would not have been the case had the Orioles tried to reunite with Wieters. Obviously, Castillo will have to make the adjustment to American League pitching, where he has only played 16 games in his career.

Behind Casillo, Caleb Joseph will likely be the backup catcher once again. Joseph had a disappointing season in 2016, finishing the season without an RBI and dealing with injuries. Chance Sisco, the top prospect in the Orioles’ organization, will likely begin the 2017 season in Triple A-Norfolk, and is likely a year or two away from making his big league debut.

It would have been nice for Baltimore to reunite with fan-favorite Wieters, but Castillo becomes the Orioles’ starting catcher who will likely give them the same production they have gotten at that position at a cheaper price.

Ravens, Steelers set to battle for AFC North dominance

To be published in The Voice, Bloomsburg University’s student-run newspaper.

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Quarterbacks Joe Flacco of the Ravens and Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers, both Super Bowl champions, hope to lead their team to an AFC North crown. Credit: clicRBS.

There are four weeks left in the NFL regular season. The playoff picture is becoming clearer by the week, but some divisions are going to take longer to sort out. One of those divisions is the AFC North. The Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers, both with records of 7-5, look to finish ahead of the other and host a home playoff game.

It is no secret that these two teams are bitter enemies. There have been countless battles between the teams over the years. Baltimore Ravens legends like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed have dueled with legends of the Steelers, including Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward. While many of the players involved in this rivalry have either switched teams or retired, there are still some old faces as well as some fresh young talent to keep this envious battle alive.

In one corner, you have the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens got off to a hot start this season, starting 3-0 before going on their first four-game losing streak in the John Harbaugh era. Since that four-game skid, the Ravens have made up some ground, winning four of their last five games. One of those wins was a 21-14 win over the Steelers in week nine.

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Last Sunday Flacco threw for 381 yards and four touchdowns, including two touchdown passes to tight end Dennis Pitta – Pitta’s first scores since 2013. Credit: Russell Street Report

Last Sunday, the Ravens defeated the Miami Dolphins 38-6. It was just the second double-digit victory for the Ravens this season. Quarterback Joe Flacco played his best game in recent memory, throwing for 381 yards and four touchdowns. Baltimore’s offense has struggled all season, but the unit finally put together 60 minutes of pure dominance.

As solid as the Ravens’ offensive showing on Sunday was, their defense has held their team together all season long. The Ravens’ defense ranks first in the NFL against the run and seventh against the pass. It is almost impossible to run the football on this defense with Timmy Jernigan and Brandon Williams blocking all the holes. Linebackers CJ Mosley and Zachary Orr are playing out of their minds. Terrell Suggs, playing on one arm, and Elvis Dumervil, recently returning from a foot injury, provide a formidable pass rush. The secondary is the weakest part of this unit, but with a veteran like Eric Weddle at the helm and corner-back Jimmy Smith shutting down receivers, the Ravens have been kept in games even when it seemed impossible that they could overcome their offensive struggles.

Oh, and let’s not forget kicker Justin Tucker, who many are already naming team MVP for the Ravens. Tucker is a perfect 28-for-28 this season in field goal attempts, including eight successful kicks from 50 or more yards. With several NFL kickers struggling to make extra points (under the new rule), Tucker’s brilliance has certainly eased the stress of Baltimore fans concerned about an offense that has struggled, particularly in the red zone.

If the Ravens are to win this division, they are going to need to become road warriors. Three of Baltimore’s final four games will be played on the road – at New England, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. The Ravens are 2-3 on the road so far this season, so if they plan on hosting a home playoff game, they are going to have to perform well in enemy territory.

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Free-agent aquisiiton Ladarius Green had a breakout game against the Giants, hauling in over 100 receiving yards and a touchdown catch. Credit: Ramblin’ Fan

In the other corner stands the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers have been a streaky team as of late, going on a four-game losing streak before winning their last three games. This past weekend, the Steelers convincingly defeated the New York Giants 24-14 and held the Giants scoreless in the first half. Ben Roethlisberger threw two touchdowns, and Le’Veon Bell ran for 118 yards on 29 carries. Free agent acquisition Ladarius Green also had a stellar day, recording 110 receiving yards and a touchdown.

From the outside looking in, everyone wants to focus on Pittsburgh’s offense. In fact, many experts were picking the Steelers to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl solely based on how strong their offense is. While the Steelers may still reach the Super Bowl, it is no secret that the offense has not performed as well as most people had predicted. In a three-game stretch earlier this season, the Steelers’ offense was held to under 20 points. However, the Steelers are capable of putting up big offensive numbers on any given Sunday. After that three-game stretch, the Steelers have put up at least 24 points in every game.

The Steelers have pro-bowl caliber players at several positions on offense. Roethlisberger continues to be one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL, doing so with a bad knee. Roethlisberger has now played five games since injuring his meniscus against the Dolphins, throwing nine touchdowns during that stretch. Big Ben has several weapons at his disposal, including Bell, Green and receivers Antonio Brown and Sammie Coates. The defense of the Pittsburgh Steelers features a great front seven that ranks sixth against the run, but their secondary is suspect, having been a weakness for a few years now.

The Steelers have an easier four-game stretch to finish out the season, playing the Bills and the Bengals on the road before returning home to face the Ravens and the winless Browns. That game against the Ravens will be played on Christmas Day, and could possibly determine the winner of the AFC North. As of this writing, the Ravens possess a half-game lead over the Steelers because of their victory over them in week nine. The Ravens have also won four-straight games against the Steelers, including the playoffs.

As the NFL playoff picture transpires, the AFC North race is one of the top storylines to watch for the rest of the season. With that being said, this Christmas Day game might be the single most-important game remaining on the NFL schedule. You might have to wait to finish up opening your presents, because this game will be must-watch television.

Ravens sink Dolphins 38-6

BALTIMORE, MD – Needing a win to keep their hopes of winning the AFC North alive, the Ravens convincingly defeated the Miami Dolphins 38-6 on Sunday. Baltimore has now won four out of their last five games, their record is now  7-5, and they snapped Miami’s six-game winning streak that dated back to Oct. 16 against the Steelers.

“A heck of a team victory,” Harbaugh said after the game. “I think its something that has been in our minds and our vision. It’s what we have been working for, and its nice to see it happen.”

Quarterback Joe Flacco put on a show for the fans in attendance at M&T Bank Stadium. Flacco threw for 381 yards and four touchdowns on 36 completions. Two of his touchdowns went to tight-end Dennis Pitta; the first being a 13-yard pass, and the latter a nine-yard score. The two touchdown receptions by Pitta were his first scores since Dec. 8, 2013 against the Minnesota Vikings.

Pitta finished the game with nine receptions for 90 yards, with the two touchdown scores.

“It was good to get back in the end-zone,” Pitta said after the game. “Obviously, to have the kind of team win and the kind of offensive production we had today was huge.”

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Ravens tight-end Dennis Pitta breaks through two Dolphins’ defenders to score one of his two touchdowns. Pitta’s scores were his first since the 2013 season. Credit: Baltimore Ravens

Flacco’s other two touchdown throws went to Terrance West and Breshad Perriman. West’s touchdown was a three-yard score on the first drive of the game. Perriman’s score was a 53-yard catch-and-run over the middle of the field. Perriman’s score made it a 31-6 game with 12:49 remaining in the fourth quarter, and in the next drive Flacco was taken out of the game and replaced by Ryan Mallett. After a Ryan Tannehill interception, the Ravens scored on a Mallett-led drive with a nine-yard run by West.

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Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco threw for 381 yards and four touchdown passes in Sunday’s win over the Dolphins. Credit: Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens’ other score came on the final play of the first half, a 55-yard field goal by Justin Tucker. Tucker is a perfect 27-27 on field goal attempts this season, including eight conversions from 50+ yards.

The 38 points put up by the Ravens was the most out up by the team this season.

On defense, the Ravens put on another stellar performance. They limited star running back Jay Ajayi to 61 yards on 12 carries, and they forced Tannehill into some bad decisions that resulted in three interceptions.

Tannehill’s first intercepted pass occurred at the beginning of the second quarter when safety Lardarius Webb collided with corner-back Jerraud Powers, but managed to pick off  the pass intended for DeVante Parker. Webb appeared to be shaken up after the play, but returned on the next defensive drive without missing any time.

After dropping an easy interception last week against the Bengals, safety Eric Weddle  intercepted a pass intended for Jarvis Landry. Weddle ran the ball back 53 yards to give Baltimore the ball at Miami’s 45-yard line.

“I’m a play-maker, anyone who thinks otherwise is fooling themselves,” Weddle said after the game. “My teammates and coaches that believe in me make it easier to move past those not-so-good plays that you have.”

In garbage time in the fourth quarter, Powers intercepted Tannehill for his second interception of the season. Overall, along with the three interceptions, the Ravens forced Miami to punt six times and miss a 46-yard field goal attempt. The Dolphins scored an eight-yard touchdown on a one-play drive after Pitta fumbled, but that would be the only time Miami got on the scoreboard. They went for a two-point conversion, but could not convert it.

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Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs after making a tackle late in the game. Credit: Palm Beach Post

The 32-point victory over Miami was the second time this season that the Ravens have won a game by a double-digit margin (28-7 against Cleveland in week 10). Before that, the last time the Ravens won a game by 10 points or more (excluding the playoffs) was against the Browns in week 17 of the 2014 season (20-10).

Getting a blowout victory has been a very hard task for the Ravens the last few seasons, and doing so on Sunday was a huge confidence booster for an offense that has been criticized all season. After the Ravens’ 19-14 win over the Bengals last week, Flacco and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg were questioned about the offense being conservative. Both men did not take too kindly to that remark, and responded against Miami.

Next week, the Ravens will face perhaps their toughest task of the season. The Ravens will travel to Foxborough, MA. to take on the New England Patriots, who are 10-2 after defeating the Los Angeles Rams 26-10 on Sunday. Right now, the first-place Patriots have the #1 seed in the AFC playoff picture, and have won three straight games.

The Ravens always play the Patriots close, but Baltimore is 2-3 on the road this season and have lost their last two meetings against New England (including the playoffs). With the Steelers tied with the Ravens for first place in the AFC North (as of this writing), every game going forward is crucial for the Ravens’ playoff hopes.

The Ravens currently hold the #3 seed in the AFC playoff picture, and they control their own destiny with the remaining four games. Three of those four games are on the road, but the Ravens have proved to be a resilient team this season. Following Sunday’s win over the Dolphins, the Ravens will be confident heading into this final four-game stretch.