Three things to watch for as the Ravens return from their bye week to welcome the Bengals

BALTIMORE — The Baltimore Ravens will return from their bye week at 4-5 and slotted into the ninth seed in the AFC playoff picture when they welcome the 5-4 Cincinnati Bengals to Baltimore on Sunday at 1:00pm at M&T Bank Stadium.

The bye week is typically a time when teams are able to get healthy, step away from football, and reset their minds for the push for the playoffs. Ideally bye weeks are uneventful but that was not the case for the Ravens.

Last Friday, CBS‘s Jason La Canfora fired off a tweet that launched a cloud of doubt over the Ravens quarterback situation:

That wasn’t it for La Canfora as he reported on Sunday that the Ravens and Head Coach John Harbaugh were heading for a “mutual parting of ways” at season’s end.

The first of these bye week stories for the Ravens has continued to play out this week as the Ravens still have not committed to who will be under center this Sunday against the Bengals. The second of these stories is something that we have expected could be possible for this Ravens team if they once again fail to make the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season.

These aren’t ideal ways for the team to be spending their bye week. The Ravens need to be focused on Sunday as they are playing for their season. A loss would put the Ravens at 4-6 and drop their playoff probability to 7.6% per ESPN. A win puts the Ravens’ playoff chances at 43%.

Here’s what to watch for ahead of Sunday’s divisional clash with the Bengals.

1) Who is under center for the Ravens?

It was the biggest story in Baltimore during the bye week and rightfully so. Many fans are ready to hand the keys to the Ravens offense over to the rookie sensation in first round pick Lamar Jackson. They have grown tired of Joe Flacco’s lack of production and are ready to see what Jackson can do. Jackson, however, missed practice on Thursday due to a stomach ailment. We will see if that impacts his chances to start on Sunday.

Others feel that Robert Griffin III gives the Ravens the best chance to win if Flacco is unable to play on Sunday. He has far more experience than Jackson but he has not played in a regular season NFL game since Jan. 1, 2017 when he was under center for the Cleveland Browns’ season-ending loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The long and short of it is this. I do not expect Flacco to play this Sunday against the Bengals. Flacco has been brutal against the Bengals lifetime and I believe that the Ravens are looking to go a different way at quarterback this week. We likely won’t know for sure which quarterback is going to play until the injury reports come out Friday and the inactives come out on Sunday.

It shouldn’t matter who is under center this Sunday. The Bengals’ defense set a modern day NFL record by allowing over 500 yards in three straight games. In that stretch they played the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Kansas City Chiefs, and New Orleans Saints but 500 yards is 500 yards. The week prior against the Steelers, they surrendered 481 total yards.

The Bengals are last in total defense and pass defense. They are 31st in rush defense and points-per-game allowed. The league average is 361.58. The Bengals are giving up 454.6. Marvin Lewis has taken over the play-calling after defensive coordinator Terryl Austin was fired this week.

Who will be under center for the Ravens this Sunday? It shouldn’t matter. The offense should be able to be productive regardless of which quarterback starts. With that being said my guess is Jackson will get his first NFL start.

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The Ravens will go as far as Wink Martindale’s defense will take them this season. Image Credit: Russell Street Report

2) Can the defense regain their form?

Numbers are a funny thing. They can be used to support your point or dispel others. It has often been said that numbers never lie.

The Ravens’ defense is tied for second in total defense, allowing 305 yards-per-game. They allow just 17.8 points-per -game, ranking them second in the NFL.

Furthermore, the Ravens are fourth in third down defense, allowing opponents to convert just 35.2% of their third down opportunities on the season. They are tied for seventh with 28 sacks on the season as well. So why does a defense who ranks top ten in all of these major categories need to regain their form?

It is because these numbers lie. The Ravens’ defense has been marginal at best during the team’s three-game losing streak. Gone are the days of 11-sack games like the one the Ravens had in Tennessee. Over the past three games the Ravens have just two sacks. Opponents are converting 52.4% of their third down opportunities. They are giving up an average of 375 yards-per-game, slightly above the league average.

In other words, while the overall season numbers say otherwise, the Ravens’ defense has become middle of the pack. I said it on the podcast this week and will continue to beat this drum for the rest of the year. The Ravens will go as far as their defense is capable of taking them. They are still the more talented and capable unit in comparison with the offense.

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Eric Weddle and Terrell Suggs are among several starters who don’t project to be back next season for the Ravens. Image Credit: Baltimore Feather

The Ravens defense is facing clouds of uncertainty this coming offseason. Veterans like Eric Weddle and Terrell Suggs could be looking at retirement or being cap casualties. Linebacker C.J. Mosley will be looking to be compensated as a top five middle linebacker despite rarely looking the part. Brandon Carr and Jimmy Smith could also be cut this offseason in moves to help the Ravens save cap space. Za’Darius Smith is in a contract year and could be on his way out of town as well.

With six starters status in flux for next season, now is the time for this defense to rally the troops and put together a dominant month and a half of football to lead this Ravens team to the playoffs.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals

Marvin Lewis and the Bengals have had the upper hand on John Harbaugh and the Ravens as of late. Image Credit: USA Today

3) Can the Ravens get the Cincinnati monkey off their backs?

Remember when everyone used to refer to the football team that plays in Cincinnati as the Bungles? From 1991-2004 the Bengals had 0 winning seasons. They were one of the laughing stocks of the NFL and a team that didn’t merit much consideration when talking about potential playoff teams.

Fast forward to 2018 and the Bengals have been to the playoffs five of the last seven years. Depite not winning a game in the playoffs the Bengals have been able to find the postseason more often than the Ravens in recent times. Cincinnati currently occupies the final playoff spot in the AFC this season to date as well.

The Bengals have owned the Ravens over the last ten matchups, boasting a record 8-2. The only two victories for the Ravens came in the season opener in 2017 when the Ravens blanked the Bengals 20-0 and in the first meeting in 2016 when the Ravens won 19-14. The Ravens had won five of six in the series prior to the Bengals’ recent run of dominance.

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A.J. Green projects to miss Sunday’s matchup and that will prove large. Image Credit: USA Today

One thing that bodes well for the Ravens Sunday is that Bengals Pro Bowl wide receiver and noted Raven killer A.J. Green figures to miss Sunday’s contest with a toe injury. Green dominated the team’s week two 34-23 Bengals win, tallying five catches for 69 yards and three first half touchdowns.

Joe Mixon is a threat at running back for Cincinnati and we all remember what Tyler Boyd did to the Ravens last season as he snatched their playoff hopes right out of their hands with a 49-yard fourth-and-12 touchdown catch with :44 seconds left at M&T Bank Stadium in the 2017 season finale.

The Ravens desperately need to exorcise their Cincy demons this Sunday and get their playoff chances back on track.

Predictions

Jake McDonnell– Bengals 27 Ravens 24

Nolan McGraw– Bengals 28 Ravens 19

Jay Stavros– Ravens 20 Bengals 17

Ian Schultz– Ravens 23 Bengals 13

The Ravens need to win this game. John Harbaugh needs to win this game. Whether the Ravens choose to part ways with Harbaugh at the end of the season or not is irrelevant. This team believes they can still make one final run to the playoffs. It starts Sunday against the Bengals when Harbaugh improves to 9-2 out of the bye and the Ravens right the ship.

Broadcast information:

Image Credit: USA Today

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Three things to watch for as the Ravens welcome the Steelers to Baltimore

The Baltimore Ravens are looking to snap a two-game losing streak this Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium when they welcome their AFC North rival – the Pittsburgh Steelers – to town in a colossal divisional contest.

The Ravens’ season appears to be at a crossroads as they sit at 4-4 after dropping three of their last four games. Last week’s loss was perhaps the most frustrating, a 36-21 setback against the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte.

The Ravens started off well once again with an impressive drive to open the game capped off with an Alex Collins 14-yard touchdown run. The Ravens’ defense forces a punt on the first Carolina drive of the day but the Panthers downed the punt at the Baltimore one-yard line.

An inexplicably poor pass from Lamar Jackson to Willie Snead on third-and-one forced the Ravens to punt. Coach Harbaugh deployed a fake punt from his own 10-yard line but it was called back due to an illegal shift, a call that befuddled the Ravens.

It all fell apart from there. The Panthers would score touchdowns on their next three drives of the first half before adding in a field goal as the half expired after an atrocious interception from Joe Flacco that put the Ravens behind 24-7. The Ravens committed three turnovers in all with Flacco adding a second interception and Collins again fumbling.

Flacco did throw a second half touchdown to rookie tight end Mark Andrews to cut the lead to 27-14 late in the third quarter but the Panthers responded with nine play, 85-yard touchdown drive to put the game away. Jackson added a garbage time touchdown pass to Hayden Hurst to make the final score 36-21.

So the Ravens sit at 4-4 ahead of what will be a month-long home stand that will kick off against the Steelers this Sunday. Here’s what to watch for ahead of the matchup.

1) What does the offensive line look like this Sunday?

Heading into this week against the Steelers, the offensive line could potentially be without three of their five starters. Alex Lewis and James Hurst have each missed the last two games due to injury and the offensive line has struggled in both contests.

To add to the issues for the Ravens, last week reserve offensive linemen Bradley Bozeman was unavailable as well against the Panthers forcing Hroniss Grasu into the starting lineup. Grasu struggled throughout the contest and looked to be the culprit of a missed block that led to the Collins fumble.

Starting left tackle Ronnie Stanley left the game as well on Sunday but would return. At one point the Ravens had an offensive line of Jermaine Eluemunor, Grassu, Matt Skura, Marshal Yanda, and Orlando Brown Jr from left to right. The Panthers were living in the backfield all day.

Keep an eye on the status of Stanley, Lewis, Hurst and Bozeman throughout the week as the Steelers rank tied for second in the NFL with 24 sacks on the season. They are led by second-year standout T.J. Watt who has seven sacks on the season. Bud Dupree, though much maligned at times, was extremely disruptive last week against the Browns despite not registering a sack.

All four linemen missed practice on Wednesday, so it will be interesting to see if any of them can make it back on the practice field Thursday or Friday ahead of Sunday’s match up.

If the Ravens offensive line isn’t healthy (healthier) this week, it could be another long week for Flacco.

2) How does the Ravens defense respond to adversity?

Does everyone remember all of the talk from two weeks ago about this being the best defense in the NFL?

The Ravens were fresh off a dominant 21-0 performance against the Tennessee Titans and had just broken the team record for sacks in a game with 11. They still had not given up a touchdown in the second half and they looked to have the swagger of the Ravens defenses of old even through the end of the third quarter of the next contest against the Saints.

And then the fourth quarter against the Saints happened but we walked away not feeling totally defeated about holding the Saints offense to 24 points albeit 17 of them came in the fourth quarter.

But last week was rock bottom for this unit. They had no answers for anything that Cam Newton and the Panthers offense threw at them. They finished the game with no sacks and very few hurries. Newton left the pocket because he wanted to, not because he was forced out. The Ravens will be looking to get their groove back this week. Jimmy Smith remains confident:

Smith is one of the many looking to rebound from a rough two weeks. The Ravens have just one sack since the Tennessee game and if you remove the 11-sack game from their numbers and replace it with their season average of two sacks per game, that would give them 18 sacks on the year ranking them tied for 21st.

This unit is not 2000 Ravens good as some suggested they could be after the first six weeks of the year. They don’t have to be. But they certainly need to play significantly better than they have in the past five quarters where they have surrendered 53 points. Keep in mind they had surrendered just 84 points in the previous 28 quarters combined.

The Steelers, as usual, aren’t lacking for weapons. We all know what Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster can do to opposing defenses. Add in James Conner who is performing at a top five level and tight ends Vance McDonald and Jesse James and this could prove to be another tough week for the defense.

Hey Mr. Leader of the defense remember this?

Your fan base says prove it:

3) Can the offense gain consistent traction?

The defense isn’t alone. The Ravens offense has been a here today and gone tomorrow kind of unit all season. While the pieces are there at the skill positions to become a more potent offense, untimely drops and inconsistent quarterback play coupled with offensive line injuries and turnovers have rendered the Ravens incapable of consistency.

This is telling. These are key drops too. Michael Crabtree dropped a potential game winning touchdown pass (and seemingly everything else that week) in Cleveland. Snead has had numerous costly drops on third and fourth down. Hurst has pitched in on the drop party on a consistent basis as well. The skill position players are better but it has been more of the same so far for the Ravens.

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While his weapons have let him down at times, Joe Flacco hasn’t exactly been lighting it up. Image Credit: Youtube

Flacco is not blameless either. While he has been putting together a decent season statistically (8th in the NFL in yards) he has had his fair share of clunkers. He has interceptions in three of the last four games including an absolutely horrid one near the end of the first half Sunday. His passer rating of 84.9 ranks 25th in the NFL.

We have discussed the troubles along the offensive line. Health can solve many of those struggles, but the running game struggled even when the offensive line was at full strength.

The Steelers enter the game with the NFL’s 15th-ranked total defense. They are 24th against the pass but rank sixth against the run. This may not be the week where the Ravens can look to run the ball effectively.

John Brown was effective in the Ravens 26-14 victory over Pittsburgh in September. Look for him to be the catalyst for the Ravens if they emerge victorious.

Predictions

Jake McDonnell- Steelers 27 Ravens 21

Jay Stavros- Steelers 31 Ravens 24

Nolan McGraw- Ravens 24 Steelers 20

Ian Schultz- Steelers 29 Ravens 23

Nolan has been right way more than the rest of us so let’s hope that trend continues. As far as my pick, I can’t see the Ravens with a depleted offensive line and a defense that is likely to be without Marlon Humphrey able to keep pace with the Steelers. The Ravens will keep it close throughout much of the contest but Pittsburgh prevails late sending the Ravens to the bye week at 4-5.

The Details:

  • When: Sunday, November 4, 2018, 1:00pm
  • Where: M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore, MD
  • Point Spread: Ravens -3,  O/U 47
  • Radio: 98 Rock/WBAL 1090 AM
  • TV: CBS
  • Commentary:  Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts

Image Credit: AP

Three things to watch for as the Ravens head to the Queen City to take on the Panthers

The Baltimore Ravens will head to Charlotte, North Carolina this weekend looking to bounce back from a disappointing 24-23 home loss to the New Orleans Saints.

The Ravens fell to 4-3 on the season when an all-too-familiar script played out in Baltimore. The Ravens entered the fourth quarter with a 17-7 lead off the strength of a Lamar Jackson touchdown run, a Joe Flacco touchdown pass to Mark Andrews, and a Justin Tucker field goal. However, the defense which had been spectacular leading up to the fourth quarter, allowed 17 unanswered points while the offense couldn’t get out of neutral as the Saints took a 24-17 lead with 2:07 to go in the game.

Flacco went to work on the next drive, marching the Ravens 81 yards in six plays and completing the drive with a 14-yard touchdown pass to John Brown to cut the lead to 24-23 with 24 seconds remaining. Brown had a massive day receiving hauling in seven passes for 134 yards and that touchdown. Someone predicted that.

Everyone inside and outside M&T Bank Stadium knew what would happen next. Tucker, the most accurate kicker in NFL history, would boot through his 223’rd consecutive extra point and the Ravens would hope for overtime with :24 seconds remaining. And then this happened:

The reactions say it all.

So the Ravens are on to Carolina looking to upend a 4-2 Panthers team that had a fourth quarter rally of their own, scoring 21 points against the defending champion Philadelphia Eagles to win 21-17 in Philly.

Here’s what to watch for ahead of Sunday’s contest in Charlotte.

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Coach Harbaugh and his Ravens need a big performance this Sunday in Carolina with a tough schedule looming. Image Credit: Getty Images

1) Is it a must win game?

When Tucker’s extra point failed and the Ravens fell to 4-3, this upcoming game against the Panthers may have become a must-win.

Here’s why. In the NFL, losing more than six games all but seals your playoff fate. Since 2012, there have been eight teams to earn playoff berths with seven or more losses. That breaks down to five division champions and three Wild Card berths, two of which were earned last season by the Bills and the Dolphins and the other being earned in 2013 by the Chargers. Just two of the last six seasons have produced a seven or more loss Wild Card team.

Since the AFC North was formed in 2002, there has never been a division champion with fewer than 10 wins. It has taken 11+ victories to win the division in 11 of the 16 years that the division has been in existence. In other words, nine wins isn’t going to be enough for the Ravens to win the AFC North. This becomes further the case when you consider Pittsburgh’s tie is likely to benefit them. A nine win Steelers team gets in over a 9-7 Ravens or Bengals team.

Year AFC North Winner Record
2002 Pittsburgh Steelers 10–5–1
2003 Baltimore Ravens 10–6–0
2004 Pittsburgh Steelers 15–1–0
2005 Cincinnati Bengals 11–5–0
2006 Baltimore Ravens 13–3–0
2007 Pittsburgh Steelers 10–6–0
2008 Pittsburgh Steelers 12–4–0
2009 Cincinnati Bengals 10–6–0
2010 Pittsburgh Steelers 12–4–0
2011 Baltimore Ravens 12–4–0
2012 Baltimore Ravens 10–6–0
2013 Cincinnati Bengals 11–5–0
2014 Pittsburgh Steelers 11–5–0
2015 Cincinnati Bengals 12–4–0
2016 Pittsburgh Steelers 11–5–0
2017 Pittsburgh Steelers 13–3–0

Is it possible with a loss on Sunday, that the Ravens could go 6-2 in the back half of the season to get to the magic number of 10 wins? Of course it is. But road contests are looming with the Atlanta Falcons, Kansas City Chiefs, and Los Angeles Chargers. The Ravens would need to win one of those games and be perfect at home. The home slate includes division match ups with the Pittsburgh Steelers next week, Cincinnati Bengals (Week 11), and Cleveland Browns (Week 17). The other home contests are the Oakland Raiders (Week 12), and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Week 15).

A loss Sunday all but ends the Ravens division hopes if history is any indication. A Wild Card berth could remain in the cards, but the Chiefs and Chargers are both likely making the playoffs leaving just one Wild Card berth available. Can a seven loss team sneak in there? Certainly possible. I wouldn’t bet on it.

The Ravens very well could be in a must-win game this Sunday.

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The Ravens defense will be looking to start another sack party this Sunday after a rocky performance against the Saints. Image Credit: AP

2) Can the Ravens contain Cam Newton and the Panthers offense?

For the second week in a row the Ravens will face one of the NFL’S top quarterbacks when they take on Cam Newton this Sunday. Newton has the Panthers at 4-2 this season and he is once again putting together another Pro-Bowl caliber season.

He is completing 65% of his passes which would set his career high. He has 14 total touchdowns in six games and has thrown just four interceptions. He is the best dual threat quarterback in the game and he will present a huge challenge for a Ravens defense coming off their biggest challenge of the season.

The 2015 NFL MVP is 37-20 lifetime at home in the regular season and the Panthers have won eight straight games at Bank of America Stadium.

A big thing to watch for this week is how Ravens number one cornerback Jimmy Smith responds after the worst performance of his career. Michael Thomas’ numbers may not have been flashy (seven receptions, 69 yards and a touchdown) but Smith also committed two pass interference penalties and whiffed on a sack attempt that allowed Drew Brees to pick up a key conversion. Smith was accountable after the game:

There was plenty of blame to go around after Sunday’s game. The Ravens mustered just one sack after their franchise record-breaking 11 against the Titans. They gave up 17 points in fourth quarter which is nearly double what they had given up in the fourth quarter/overtime in the first six games combined.

The defense is in a good spot to get back to the domination we have been accustomed to against a Carolina offense that ranks 18th in total offense, 22nd in passing offense, and 18th in points-per-game. Their biggest threats on offense are running back Christian McCaffrey and tight end Greg Olsen. If the Ravens can do a good job on those two players, they should be able to come out on top.

NFL: Preseason-New Orleans Saints at Baltimore Ravens

More consistency is needed from the Ravens offense if they want to make it back to the playoffs. Image Credit: USA Today

3) Can the offense pick up the pace?

As those of you who read these articles weekly and listen to the Charm City Bird Watch podcast should already know (thanks for doing both), I am a major supporter of Flacco. If you’re new here (thanks for popping in keep doing it), now you know as well. That doesn’t mean that he is not subject to criticism.

When the Saints cut the lead to 17-14 in the fourth quarter, the Ravens offense responded with a three-and-out on a drive that ended with Flacco taking a sack on his own 15-yard line. The Saints would score on their next possession to take a 21-17 lead thanks to a short field and the offense again failed to get points, going nine plays this time but ultimately turning it over on downs. Flacco was 2-for-9 on those two drives and took a sack inside of his own 20-yard line.

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Joe Flacco led a big time drive to presumably tie the game against the Saints. But he and the offense could’ve helped the Ravens avoid the need for it. Image Credit: USA Today

Flacco played a great game on Sunday, one of his best of the year. His poise to lead the team down the field for the game-tying (we thought) touchdown after his offense and the Ravens defense faltered, should be applauded. Flacco is in the midst of having his best season yet but simply put the Ravens will need more consistency from Flacco and the offense this week if they want to emerge victorious in Carolina.

They will meet a Carolina defense that ranks 13th in total defense, 17th in passing yards allowed, and tenth in points-per-game allowed. Luke Kuechly and company are stout against the run, ranking ninth in the league. Flacco will need to throw early and often for the Ravens to come out on top.

Predictions:

Jay Stavros– Ravens 28 Panthers 17

Nolan McGraw– Panthers 19 Ravens 16

Jake McDonnell– Ravens 20 Panthers 19

Ian Schultz– Ravens 24 Panthers 20

I know I picked the Panthers on the podcast but this is a massive game for the Ravens. A win in this game keeps them on track for ten wins which should be enough to help the Ravens get back to the playoffs. Flacco and the offense are able to put just enough points on the board in Carolina this Sunday and the Ravens get to 5-3 ahead of their week nine showdown with the Steelers.

The Details:

Image Credit: Baltimore Sports and Life