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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ravens leave week 1 healthy, defeat Bills 13-7

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With uncertainty surrounding the Ravens on Sunday, the purple birds knocked off the Buffalo Bills with a 13-7 win.

It might not be the sexiest victory on paper. The Ravens only scored one offensive touchdown. They ran the ball 28 times, averaging three yards per rush. Joe Flacco was sacked four times, and was hit nine times. But the Ravens defense put on a performance to remember, forcing the Bills to punt seven times in their nine offensive drives. With only a six-point margin, those stops proved to be the difference.

Perhaps the game ball this week should go to corner-back Shareece Wright. Wright led the Ravens with 11 tackles, three for losses. 11 tackles is almost unheard of for a corner-back, let alone a corner-back who generally plays on the outside. Wright had not played very well in the preseason, but his performance on Sunday was superb.

“I was in position to make tackles, and we emphasized that, making tackles on McCoy and being able to get those guys down and eliminate big plays,” Wright said after the game. “We know they’re explosive when they’re making guys miss tackles, so that was important today, and I was able to get that done.”

Timmy Jernigan also had himself a nice day. He recorded two tackles for loss, one of them being a sack that came on a third down play that forced Buffalo to punt. When Baltimore got the ball back, they put the ball in the end-zone.

The other Raven to notch a sack was linebacker Terrell Suggs. Playing in his first game in 364 days, Suggs took down former teammate Tyrod Taylor on a third down play in the Bills’ last drive of the game.

All around, it was one of the best Ravens defensive performances since coordinator Dean Pees took over in 2012. Taylor only threw for 111 yards on 15 completions, and the Bills’ run game was limited to 65 yards. Altogether, Buffalo’s offense was held to 160 yards.

“Pees called one hell of a game,” Suggs said post-game.” It was all about don’t let Tyrod Taylor make an explosive play. Don’t let him break the game open, and we did that. We did that collectively.”

Like Buffalo, the Ravens did not have a great offensive performance, but it did not matter. Quarterback Joe Flacco, playing in his first game since tearing his ACL in November, threw for 258 yards and a touchdown. He had defenders in his face several times, especially in the second half. His knee held up fine and he got right back up each time after he was knocked to the grass. One blunder occurred when Flacco fumbled a shot-gun snap, but there appeared to be some miscommunication with center Jeremy Zuttah.

Flacco got everyone involved with the game plan, and threw the ball to 10 different receivers.

Free agent acquisition Mike Wallace led the Ravens receivers, catching three passes for 91 yards and a touchdown. His 66-yard touchdown catch was a thing of beauty; Flacco deep bombs went missing in 2015, and now Baltimore has a few deep threats on the receiving core.

“A lot of people wrote me off,” Wallace said. “They think I don’t have it, but I’ve got something for them. I told you all that from day one. Nothing’s going to change.”

Returning from a ruptured Achilles, wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. hauled in five catches for 19 yards. It might be a few weeks before Smith really gets it going, but it was just good to see him running around on the field after he did not play in any preseason games.

M&T Bank Stadium erupted when tight end Dennis Pitta and wide receiver Breshad Perriman hauled in their first receptions. Pitta played in his first game in almost two years after suffering a second hip dislocation in September 2014, and Perriman played in his first NFL game after missing his entire rookie season with a knee injury. He only caught one pass, but it was a big 35-yard grab that might have been the catch of the game.

As much as the defense should be commended for their efforts, it is concerning to see the Ravens only score three points in the final two quarters. The offense seemed to shut down at times, and aside from the field goal, two drives ended in punts and the other ended in a loss of downs. Flacco was sacked three times, twice in the same drive. The offensive line also had trouble opening up holes for running backs Justin Forsett and Terrance West in the second half. The duo combined for 28 yards on 11 carries after halftime. When Buffalo had no timeouts left at the end of the game, the Ravens were able to run out the clock by running the ball, but the Ravens finished with just 83 rushing yards.

Perhaps the best part of Sunday’s game was that no Ravens left the game without suffering any significant injuries. No Raven was lying on the ground at the end of a play throughout the entire game. After ending 2015 with over 20 players on injured reserve, the Ravens will gladly take that.

“Just an excellent team victory,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “I thought our guys figured out how to play winning football throughout the course of the game.”

This week, the Ravens will shift their attention to the Cleveland Browns, who suffered a 29-10 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles and their rookie quarterback Carson Wentz. It will be the first real road trip for Baltimore, who will enter “The Dawg Pound.”

By the way, the Orioles won 3-1 today too.

 

Podcast: Baltimore Ravens Columnist John Eisenberg

On today’s edition of the Jake McDonnell sports podcast, Baltimore Ravens columnist John Eisenberg calls in.

Eisenberg and Jake break down the latest Ravens news to get you ready for week 1.

Topics covered:
-Recapping the Justin Forsett situation that occurred over the weekend
-Who is playing and not playing against the Bills on Sunday
-The return of Rex Ryan, Ed Reed and Tyrod Taylor to M&T Bank Stadium
-The key to the game for the Ravens

Thanks for listening!

Podcast: Ravens Staff Writer Ryan Mink

Welcome to the June 9th edition of the Jake McDonnell Sports Podcast! Today’s episode features a great conversation with a very special guest: Baltimore Ravens staff writer Ryan Mink. As the Ravens wrap up OTA’s, Jake and Ryan dive into some of the hottest topics surrounding the Ravens as training camp approaches.

Topics covered include:

  • Biggest concerns facing the Ravens in 2016
  • How key injured players – Joe Flacco, Terrell Suggs, Justin Forsett, among others – are doing, and will they be ready for training camp?
  • The 2016 rookie class, and some under-the-radar players to watch in camp
  • The Eugene Monroe saga
  • How the additions of Eric Weddle and Leslie Frazier will impact the secondary

Thanks for listening!