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

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Five key takeaways from Ravens 36-21 loss to Panthers

The Baltimore Ravens looked poised for a big afternoon after taking a 7-0 lead on their first possession of Sunday’s game in Charlotte but things quickly fell apart as Cam Newton led the Panthers to a 36-21 victory. Here are five key things I am focusing on following the Ravens’ fourth loss of the season

1. Running game can’t put together a complete game:

It’s no secret that the Ravens’ rushing attack has been lackluster all season. Alex Collins has failed to build upon his breakout 2017 campaign and the depth behind him is not providing much supplemental help.

Collins’struggles continued on Sunday when he fumbled at the beginning of the second quarter. Panthers defensive tackle Kyle Love exploded through the offensive line with ease and leveled Collins for what appeared to be just a six-yard loss. Things took a quick turn for the worse when Collins juggled the ball after taking the hit and proceeded to cough it up. This marks the third time Collins has fumbled this season.

What’s frustrating is the fact that Collins was off to a solid start with 19 yards and a touchdown in the early goings. Collins ran the ball seven times after the fumble but I wouldn’t say the Ravens abandoned the run game in this one. It’s hard to keep going to a guy like Collins after a fumble but being down by three scores at the half doesn’t help either. Moving forward Buck Allen is going to need to be more involved in the run game. I don’t understand why but he has been called upon to run the ball just four times in the last three weeks.

2. Defense forced into tough situations:

The Ravens’ defense surrendered a season-high 36 points against the Panthers but the odds where not in their favor from start to finish as the Panthers found themselves starting with great field position on numerous drives.

Two Joe Flacco interceptions and the ugly fumble by Collins helped set up three short field scoring possessions for the Panthers. Overall it was a great afternoon for the Carolina offense as their average starting position was their own 37-yard line.

This still does not excuse the defense’s overall performance. Wink Martindale’s crew remained a top statistical defense even after last week’s game against New Orleans but the numbers were even worse in this one. The Ravens gave up a season-high 154 rushing yards and 386 total yards of offense. To give you some perspective, they have only given up more yards against the Browns (416) and that game featured an extra ten minutes of overtime.

3. Extended playing time for Lamar Jackson:

After the Panthers went up 36-14 late in the fourth quarter the Ravens opted to send Lamar Jackson out for the final offensive drive of the game. The rookie saw more playing time in the season opener against Buffalo but this week’s garbage time drive still showed us quite a bit. Jackson completed all four of his passes for 42 yards and capped off the two-minute drive with a touchdown pass to fellow rookie Hayden Hurst.

Prior to the final drive the Ravens were utilizing Jackson in the run game like they have most of this season. Jackson finished the afternoon with 26 rushing yards on three carries. His only mistake came in the first quarter when he failed to connect with a wide open Willie Snead on third and one.

4. Injury scare for Ronnie Stanley:

The Ravens have gotten pretty banged up over the past few weeks, especially on the offensive line. With Alex Lewis and James Hurst already inactive this week, everyone was holding their breath when Ronnie Stanley went down in the second half.

The Ravens’left tackle got rolled up by Flacco as he was in the process of falling to the ground. Flacco threw the ball away in an attempt to avoid the sack but he still came down hard on the back of the lineman’s legs. Stanley appeared to be in a lot of pain immediately following the play and had to be helped off the field.

Jermaine Eluemunor entered the game at left tackle after being called up from the practice squad earlier this week. Fortunately for the Ravens, Stanley was able to walk around the sideline after getting examined on the sideline and later returned to the game.

Right now the injury doesn’t appear to be serious, especially since Stanley returned to the game in garbage time, but the Ravens will need him at 100% moving forward. It goes without saying but the Ravens cannot afford anymore injuries on the offensive line. Their health was their strong suit early on this season but now that they have reached the midway point, it’s starting to get pretty shaky.

5. A look around the AFC North:

Morale was low following the heartbreaking loss to the Saints last week but at least the division standings didn’t change much with the Bengals and Browns both losing. This week there is no consolation for Ravens fans as the Steelers took down the Browns and the Bengals overcame a surprise Fitzmagic appearance for an overtime win.

Baltimore now finds themselves in third place with a record of 4-4. However, November will have a big impact on the way the division shakes out as the Ravens prepare to host both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati in the next three weeks.

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Jake McDonnell’s postgame live stream:

Image credit: Mike McCarn / AP

Five things we learned from Ravens 21-0 win over Titans

NASHVILLE — The Baltimore Ravens advanced to 4-2 with a 21-0 shutout over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, who fell to 3-3. For the Ravens, this ended a three-game road trip with the team going 2-1 over that span.

The three-game road trip was filled with ups and downs, but it ended on a high note with Sunday’s win over Tennessee. Here are five things we learned about the Ravens in their first shutout of the 2018 season.


1. Holy crap, pass rush!

Ever since the Ravens’ defense tallied six sacks against the Buffalo Bills in the opening game of the season, the pass rush failed to put opposing quarterbacks on the ground more than five times in a game.

Sunday against Tennessee, that trend changed. The Ravens’ pass rush exploded on the Titans, finishing with a franchise-high 11 sacks and absolutely terrorizing Marcus Mariota. Speaking of Mariota, he finished the game being sacked more times than his completion total showed, which was 10 passes.

Za’Darius Smith led the pass rushers with three sacks. Patrick Onwuasor followed with two. Matthew Judon, Terrell Suggs, Tony Jefferson, Kenny Young, Anthony Levine Sr., and Chris Wormley all found their way into the Tennessee backfield on Sunday with one sack each. The 11-sack total the Titans allowed in this game was more than the total amount of sacks they had let up all season (9).

Mariota finished the game with 117 passing yards. He didn’t stand a chance, as his offense went 1-for-10 on third down with the running back tandem of Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis combining for 30 yards on 12 carries.

With former defensive coordinator Dean Pees on the opposite end of the sideline, the Ravens’ defense wanted to send a clear message. Even though several players expressed their respect for Pees this past week, they wanted to stick it to their old play-caller. Not only did the defense’s performance on Sunday prove that they live on without Pees, it showed that the defense could be better than they ever were with him leading the way.


2. Michael Crabtree puts Cleveland nightmare behind him

Against the Browns last week, Michael Crabtree hauled in just six of 12 targets with multiple drops, including a potential touchdown grab in the fourth quarter that could have won the game for the Ravens. Crabtree has run into some issues with drops in his career, but he’s consistently bounced back from his struggles. That pattern continued against Tennessee, where Crabtree rebounded by leading the Ravens with 93 yards on six receptions, including a four-yard touchdown catch. It marked Crabtree’s first touchdown reception since the season opener against Buffalo.

Willie Snead caught seven passes for 60 yards, but the next leading receiver, John Brown, only caught two. Crabtree signed a three-year contract with the Ravens coveting him as a red-zone threat. The Ravens certainly expected more than two touchdowns through the first six games for Crabtree, but the Ravens will go forward and hope that Crabtree’s bounce-back today carries over in the next three games before the bye.


3. Ravens balance out offense, make honest effort to run the football

In the Ravens’ two losses this season, the ratio of run and pass plays has scewed much more towards the pass. In Marty Morthinweg’s sixth game called this season, he ran 35 run plays and 38 pass plays. The end result was Joe Flacco completing 27 passes for 238 yards, one touchdown, and one interception, with the run game compiling 123 yards on the ground.

On 19 carries, Alex Collins could only rack up 54 yards for an average of 2.8 yards-per-carry. Although many of his runs went short, he did break free for a 13-yard touchdown run in the first half.

After Collins, Gus Edwards carried the ball 10 times for 42 yards in his regular season debut. Lamar Jackson‘s lone rush attempt, a 22-yarder, awarded the Ravens a first down midway through the third quarter. Buck Allen caught three passes for 18 yards, but only received one carry which went one yard.

The results of the run game aren’t anything sexy and are aided by Jackson’s 22-yard run, but the encouraging sign was how many holes opened up for the running backs as opposed to the first five weeks. With Allen proving to be an asset in the passing game, Edwards will continue to split the load with Collins for the lion’s share of carries. Considering Edwards led the team with 174 rushing yards (53 carries) in the preseason, he’s a name to keep an eye on going forward.


4. Second-half defensive dominance continues

The Ravens may have compiled 11 sacks on Mariota on Sunday, but don’t forget that they again did not allow a second-half touchdown. Baltimore’s defense has not allowed an opposing offense to reach the end zone in the second half yet this season. The unit continues to put up incredible numbers, and it’s becoming fun to watch, not just in the game, but on social media too. Check out this Tweet from Barstool Banks with another interesting tidbit surrounding the 2018 Ravens defense.

The outstanding defensive performances are helping out the Ravens’ offense too. Two weeks ago against Pittsburgh, the Ravens got by on four Justin Tucker field goals because the defense shut out Ben Roethlisberger in the second half. Then this week, the only score the Ravens needed in the second half was a two-yard run by Collins midway through the third quarter. It’s no secret that Flacco performs better when his defense backs him up, and the defense has certainly held up their end of the bargain through the first six games.


5. Alex Lewis injury could present offensive line shuffling

A scary moment occurred in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s win when left guard Alex Lewis went down with a neck injury. Lewis remained on the ground for several minutes before a cart was brought onto the field, where Lewis was placed on a stretcher and taken away from Nissan Stadium in an ambulance.

According to the Ravens, upon arriving at the hospital Lewis regained movement in all of his extremities and was even cleared to fly back with the Ravens on the team plane Sunday night. Lewis underwent a CT scan, and head coach John Harbaugh said that the team will release details on Lewis’ injury once they get the scan results back.

Unfortunately, Lewis’ issues with injuries continue and he’s likely to miss some time while healing this neck injury. Who knows, it could even be season-ending. The good news is that the Ravens have some depth along the offensive line.

After Lewis came out of the game, rookie center Bradley Bozeman filled in at left guard while James Hurst remained at right tackle. This seems puzzling, given that the Ravens have rookie tackle Orlando Brown Jr. waiting in the wings to make his regular season debut, but it’s worth noting that Hurst has not practiced much at left guard this season after starting all 16 games last year at left guard. If Lewis is out for a long period of time, the Ravens could absolutely move Hurst back to left guard and have Brown slide in at right tackle. Given the nature of a sudden injury, it’s understandable as to why the coaches kept Hurst at right tackle for the remainder of the game.


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Image Credit: NBC Sports