Podcast: Jack Fritz offers his take on the upcoming Eagles & Ravens match-up

Tomorrow marks the first time in four years that the Philadelphia Eagles and the Baltimore Ravens square off in a regular season match-up. To break down the game, 2016 Bloomsburg University alum. Jack Fritz joined me. Fritz is a co-founder of Philly Fan Life, an Eagles writer for Philly Football Talk, and the host of the If I were a Gambling Man podcast.

Be sure to check out Jack’s work on all of these platforms and enjoy his take on what should be an interesting December match-up tomorrow at M&T Bank Stadium.

 

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 can’t overcome 20-point deficit, fall to Patriots 30-23

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Running back Kenneth Dixon finished the game with 39 rushing yards and 42 receiving yards with a touchdown. Credit: Baltimore Ravens

FOXBOROUGH, MA – The Ravens fell behind 16-0 and trailed 23-3 in the second half in Monday night’s game against the New England Patriots. Baltimore almost came back, but it was too much to overcome as New England walked away with a 30-23 win.

The Patriots got the upper hand early on as the Ravens’ special teams units put the team in bad positions. After New England’s second offensive series that ended in a punt, the Ravens were backed up to their own one-yard line after returner Devin Hester let the ball hit the ground and bounce back to the Ravens’ goal-line. On the first play of the ensuing drive, Baltimore running back Kenneth Dixon was tackled in the end-zone by two Patriots defenders. That gave the Patriots a 2-0 lead, and the Ravens would then have to punt to New England.

Luckily, Baltimore’s defense forced the Patriots into another punt, but on Baltimore’s next drive the Ravens got to New England’s 16-yard line before Justin Tucker’s attempted field goal was blocked by linebacker Shea McClellin. The blocked field goal attempt snaps Tucker’s successful streak at 35 conversions, and is his first miss of the season.  From there, New England answered with a 10-play scoring drive that saw LeGarrette Blount score from the one-yard line.

During that New England drive, the Ravens lost starting corner-back Jimmy Smith to an ankle injury. Smith did not come back into the game after being listed as “doubtful.”After the game, head coach John Harbaugh revealed that Smith suffered an ankle sprain, but did not comment on the severity of it.

Later in the game the Ravens would lose another corner-back. This time it was Jerraud Powers, suffering a concussion. This forced Shareece Wright and Matt Elam to see increased snaps, and left Wright and rookie Tavon Young as the outside corners.

New England would add another touchdown on the next drive; a six-yard pass from Tom Brady to Malcolm Mitchell to put the Patriots up by 16. The Ravens were able to kick a field goal before halftime, but had their work cut out for them trailing 16-3 at the half.

Things got worse in the beginning of the second half. The Patriots scored yet another touchdown on their first drive of the half, and the Ravens were staring at a 20-point deficit. However, just when Ravens suffered multiple special teams blunders in the first half, New England would return the favor.

The first special teams gift the Patriots gave the Ravens was a fumbled punt return by Cyrus Jones. That gave the Ravens the ball at New England’s three-yard line, and Baltimore got in the end zone on a three-yard strike from Joe Flacco to tight end Darren Waller. On the ensuing kickoff, the Patriots gave the Ravens another gift when returner Matthew Slater fumbled, and Baltimore recovered at the Patriots’ 22-yard line. Four plays later, Flacco found Dixon for an eight-yard score.

Trailing by 20 points? No problem. The Ravens were able to make it a six-point game after scoring two touchdowns on 25 combined yards. With five minutes to go in the third quarter, the Patriots had a rather uncomfortable 23-17 lead, and the Ravens were licking their chops.

Baltimore’s luck would run eventually run out.

Following a few punts, the Ravens added another field goal to make it a 23-20 game. Brady answered by exploiting Baltimore’s injury-riddled defense on the first play of New England’s next drive, finding receiver Chris Hogan for a 79-yard touchdown to make it 30-20 with six minutes left.

The Ravens got the ball back and made it a one-possession game with a field goal. The only problem was that the Ravens had absolutely no urgency on that drive, eating up over four minutes of clock. Flacco elected to throw to the tailbacks more than the receivers on the drive (a common theme throughout the entire game) and simply too much time was taken off of the clock. Once the Patriots got the ball back, they only needed one first down to lock up the win.

Looking ahead: The Ravens now hold a 7-6 record and sit in second place in the AFC North, one game behind the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Ravens have a very winnable game at home next week against the Philadelphia Eagles, but follow that up with two road games at Pittsburgh – on Christmas –  and Cincinnati to close out the regular season. If both the Ravens and Steelers win next week (Pittsburgh plays at Cincinnati), that Christmas Day game in Pittsburgh is a must-win game. The Ravens already beat the Steelers early this season, so sweeping the Steelers would favor the Ravens in any tie-breaker scenario with Pittsburgh.

The other possibility would have the Ravens grabbing a wild card spot. Right now, the Oakland Raiders (10-3) and the Denver Broncos (8-5) hold those spots, with the Kansas City Chiefs sitting atop the AFC West (10-3). If the Ravens were to grab one of those wild cards, they would have to count on finishing ahead of Denver in the standings. The Broncos have the toughest remaining schedule in the NFL, as they face the Patriots, Chiefs and Raiders in their final three games.

Keeping it simple: The Ravens can win the division if they win out. They control their own destiny, but the game against the Steelers is clearly the most important game remaining on the schedule. Now one game back behind the Steelers, the Ravens have their work cut out for them if the plan on playing in January.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The hypocrisy of the NFL rolls on with continuation of Thursday Night Football

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Whether you have played the game or not, it is not hard to see that football is a violent sport. Football players put their bodies on the line every time that they step on the field. A number of players suffer serious injuries throughout a season that can alter careers. With all of the hard hits being taken, one would assume that the National Football League would be willing to give their players sufficient time to heal between each game.

Well, that’s not the case.

Since the 2012 season, all 32 NFL teams have been forced to play at least one of their games on Thursday night. Prior to 2012, there were only a handful of games per season played on Thursday (including Thanksgiving), but in 2012 the NFL decided to have at least one game per week played on Thursday Night, with an exception in the last week of the regular season.

On Sunday, Nov. 27, a report by NBC’s Mike Florio speculated that the NFL would consider doing away with Thursday Night Football due to the decreasing ratings. On Monday, a league representative responded to the report, saying that the NFL has no plans to cancel or reduce Thursday Night Football.

Even though every team plays no more than two games on Thursday night per season, most players would probably prefer to not play any of their games on Thursday. Giving football players only four days to rest their bodies is simply not a reasonable time frame.

Two high school football players agreed that on average it took about three days to physically heal from a game. Both of these men played at skill positions (running back, wide receiver, for example), and were getting hit several times throughout a game. If they took a helmet to the leg, for example, it could take longer than three days for that leg to start feeling normal again.

Three days was the average amount of time for a high school player to recover. Imagine how NFL players in their late 20’s and early 30’s feel after only four days of rest.

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Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly is carted off of the field after suffering a concussion on Nov. 17. Credit: Sportal.

Just two weeks ago, in a Thursday Night match-up between the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers, Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly took a big hit when trying to tackle Saints running back Tim Hightower. The hit did not appear to be that hard, but Kuechly’s helmet brushed Hightower’s and that of Panthers teammate Thomas Davis Sr.

After the play, Kuechly remained on the field until Carolina trainers got to him. Kuechly took his helmet off, and appeared to be hyperventilating. He ended up being carted off of the field with tears in his eyes. It was later revealed that he had suffered a concussion.

Concussions do not usually end with a player being carted off the field. Usually, a player can gather their thoughts and walk off the field after a minute or two. Kuechly had suffered a previous concussion in the 2015 season. Given Kuechly’s previous encounter with the infamous head injury, was four days of rest enough for him to fully recover?

It is no secret that the NFL has had its issues with concussions, so much so that it has gotten to the point that defensive players can no longer lead with their helmet when making a tackle. With all of the lawsuits former NFL players are issuing the league, I find it surprising that the NFL continues to treat their players like pieces of meat. Only giving them a half week to recover from a Sunday game to then play on Thursday is ludicrous.

But hey, money talks.

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Seahawks corner-back Richard Sherman is one of the players that has voiced his frustration with Thursday Night Football. Credit: NinersNation.

A number of players and coaches have previously expressed their frustration with having to play on Thursday night. Seattle Seahawks corner-back Richard Sherman has been one of the most vocal players to express his opinion on the matter. Sherman feels that the league is contradicting itself by having their players perform with less than four days of rest.

With all of the rule changes the NFL has made for “player safety,” Thursday Night Football refutes every effort the league has made to better protect it’s players.

Having football on prime-time three nights a week instead of two is obviously a revenue booster. However, it is a shame that the NFL is thinking about money before its players. Its a mindset that has been in the league for a long time, and that mindset is not going away anytime soon.