Three things to watch for as the Ravens head to Atlanta to take on the Falcons

The Baltimore Ravens sit at 6-5 with five games remaining on the season. They are currently sitting in the final playoff spot in a crowded AFC Wild Card race. They will be looking to extend their winning streak to three straight when they head to Atlanta to take on the 4-7 Falcons Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium at 1:00pm.

Lamar Jackson was under center for the second consecutive week for injured veteran starting quarterback Joe Flacco and the Ravens were able to take down the Oakland Raiders 34-17. Jackson was 14-of-25 for 178 yards with a touchdown and two tip drill-type interceptions. He also added 11 carries for 71 yards and a rushing touchdown as well.

The Ravens got a big game from pass rusher Matt Judon who picked up three sacks on the afternoon including a huge strip sack that was recovered by Terrell Suggs and taken back for the game-clinching touchdown.

Suggs showed impressive speed down the sidelines after he was unable to find anyone to pitch the ball too. It was Suggs’ first touchdown in 10 seasons. He had this to say after the game:

So the Ravens will head to Atlanta this Sunday hoping to extend their winning streak against a Falcons team that has followed three straight wins with three straight losses. They sit at 4-7, tied with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for last place in the NFC South.

Here’s what to watch for ahead of another big game for the Ravens.

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1) How does Lamar Jackson look in his first road start?

Jackson is 2-0. That’s great news for the Ravens who have been without Flacco for the last two weeks and it looks like Flacco will miss Sunday’s contest against the Falcons. Flacco has yet to be medically cleared to practice and it would be difficult to envision a scenario where he is out there this Sunday.

Jackson is 27-of-44 for 328 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions through the air.  He has also added 37 carries for 190 yards and a rushing touchdown.  Jackson has done so against the NFL’S 32nd and 26th ranked total defenses in the Bengals and the Raiders respectively.

He has helped spark a running game along with fellow rookie Gus Edwards. The Ravens have rushed for 509 yards in Jackson’s two starts and had rushed for just 834 yards prior to Jackson’s arrival in the starting lineup.

What has impressed me most about Jackson is his calmness in the pocket. I mentioned this last week but he really does have a presence about him in the pocket that I didn’t expect to see, especially not this early. He seems like he has a great attitude and is consistently looking for ways to get better. He also doesn’t seem to have a sense of entitlement to the job either.

I am not a Lamar Jackson fan. I didn’t like the pick at the time as I didn’t feel it was a position of need. I think that his limitations in the short and intermediate passing games will make it extremely difficult for him to be successful long term in the NFL. The long ball, however, seems to be a strength:

With my dislike for the Jackson pick aside, I can admit that he looks significantly more polished than I expected him to.

But playing on the road is a different beast in the NFL. The Falcons will be a more rested unit than the Ravens, having lost on Thanksgiving night to the New Orleans Saints. And while the Ravens think they have the Falcons game-planning for two quarterbacks, I would think that Falcons head coach Dan Quinn and his staff are able to read between the lines here and spend most of their time planning for Jackson.

Many Ravens fans think that this team still has a shot at the playoffs (myself included). A win Sunday with Jackson under center would be a huge step in the right direction.

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Marlon Humphrey and Jimmy Smith will be tested early and often in Atlanta Sunday. Image Credit: Purple Reign Show

2) Can the Ravens slow down the Falcons offense?

While they have tapered off a bit, the Falcons rank seventh in the NFL in total offense, fourth in passing offense, and 11th in points-per-game.

They are going to pose a significantly larger challenge to the Ravens defense than the Bengals and Raiders did. Their wide receivers are among the NFL’s best in Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, and Mohammed Sanu.  Any of these three guys would represent the Ravens’ best pass catching option.

They also have Tevin Coleman at running back who averages over four yards-per-carry and is also a threat of the backfield. Austin Hooper at tight end is a consistent threat over the middle too.

Matt Ryan is having another All-Pro caliber season despite failing to lead the Falcons to a winning record. Ryan has 3,683 yards passing and has added 24 touchdowns with just five interceptions. Despite their three-game losing streak, Ryan has thrown five touchdowns to two interceptions in those contests.

This is a big test for the NFL’s top ranked defense (LOL no really look it up). One welcomed sign last week for the Ravens was the emergence of Judon along the pass rush.  Throughout much of the offseason, we heard about what a huge season that Judon was in store for. He found himself on preseason watch lists and Judon himself declared he wanted to lead the league in sacks.

These were the Ravens’ only three sacks of the day and they will need the pass rushing group to be big this Sunday against the Falcons. As good as the Ravens’ secondary can be, if the pass rush fails to get pressure on Ryan, the Falcons wideouts will run wild on the Ravens.

Another stat to watch for: The Falcons haven’t scored 20+ points since a week nine win over the Washington Redskins. If that trend continues, the Ravens might be able to sneak out of at Atlanta with a key road win.

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John Harbaugh and the Ravens desperately need a road win this Sunday to keep their playoff hopes alive. Image Credit: Getty Images

3) Desperation

The Ravens are currently the #6 seed in the AFC playoff picture. They will need to continue their winning ways in order to remain there.

The schedule doesn’t get any easier for the Ravens after this week’s matchup in Atlanta. The Ravens are 6-5 and will likely need nine wins to be in the conversation for the last Wildcard spot when the final horn on the 2018 season sounds.

Of their three remaining road games, this one projects to be “the most winnable” on paper. The Ravens travel to Kansas City next week to take on the Chiefs (#1 seed in the AFC) before their final road contest against the 8-3 Los Angeles Chargers (#5 seed) in week 16.

Assuming the Ravens come up short in both of those contests, they would need this road win and wins in their two remaining home games to make the playoffs. Their opponents are the Tampa Bay Bucs, who boast the number one offense in the NFL, and the Cleveland Browns, who are looking more and more dangerous by the week. Those two games will not be gimmies either.

The Ravens need to win this game far more than the Falcons need to win this game. They’ll need to prove that this Sunday.

Predictions:

Jake McDonnell– Falcons 27 Ravens 24

Nolan McGraw– Ravens 24 Falcons 21

Jay Stavros– Ravens 28 Falcons 20

Ian Schultz– Falcons 27 Ravens 10

While the Falcons have struggled offensively the past three weeks, I cannot see this Ravens defense being able to effectively shut them down. While they might be able to slow them down enough to keep the Ravens competitive, Jackson and the offense will struggle throughout and the Ravens will find themselves at 6-6 heading to Kansas City.

Broadcast information:

Image Credit: Baltimore Sun

 

 

 

 

 

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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

Three things to watch for as the Ravens look to bounce back in the Music City

The Baltimore Ravens were flying high heading in to take on the lowly Cleveland Browns last week looking to build on their Sunday Night Football victory over the arch rival Steelers.

Unfortunately “the same old Ravens” showed up to First Energy Stadium and the Ravens left with a disappointing 12-9 overtime loss against the upstart Browns. Joe Flacco and the offense didn’t register a touchdown on the day and seemed to be out of sync throughout. The defense was good enough to win on Sunday surrendering just 12 points across five quarters of football but couldn’t get the last stop to preserve a tie (how awful does preserving a tie sound?).

But alas the Ravens sit at 3-2 in second place in the AFC North and are headed to Nashville to take a on a 3-2 Tennessee Titans team that has been up and down this season. They are in first place in the AFC South division and are fresh off of a 13-12 road loss to the Buffalo Bills this past Sunday in a game where they produced just 221 yards of total offense.

Here’s what to watch for ahead of this week’s game.

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Michael Crabtree will be looking to bounce back from his worst performance of the season. Image Credit: AP

1) Can the offense bounce back? 

Flacco and the offense need to be better than they were on Sunday for the Ravens to have any chance of turning this into a special season. While Michael Crabtree and his NFL-leading seven drops are getting the lion share of the attention, the rest of the offense was ineffective as well. Flacco was 29-56 for 298 yards and a costly redzone interception.

Crabtree, Willie Snead, and John Brown combined to haul in just 15 of the 33 targets they received. The running game started well but floundered in the second half. The Ravens haven’t scored a touchdown in 123:03 of game time after beginning the season 12-for-12 in the red zone.

This Sunday, the Ravens will take on their former defensive coordinator Dean Pees and his Titans defense that currently ranks seventh in yards-per-game allowed. The Titans do a great job stopping the pass attack of their opponents, boasting a ranking of third in the NFL surrendering just 210 yards per game.

Where the Titans struggle defensively is stopping the run. They rank 26th in the NFL giving up 123.2 yards-per game on the ground. Ironically, the Ravens have really struggled running the football this season and they will be presented with another favorable match-up in hopes to get the running game going.

The Ravens are seventh in the league in rushing attempts. Despite cries from fans for a better run-pass balance, John Harbaugh doesn’t seem concerned:

The Ravens have been ineffective in running the football this season as they are averaging just 3.4 yards-per-attempt which ranks 30th in the league. They have also had issues with ball security from their running backs as both Alex Collins and Buck Allen have fumbled this season. Collins has lost the football twice and Allen has once.

I am not sure how much trust Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg have in the running game at this point and if they can’t get it going against one of the NFL’S worst units, this could be a storyline that continues throughout the season.

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Jerry Rosburg and his special teams unit will be hoping for an incident free performance against the Titans. Image Credit: Baltimore Sun

2) Can the Ravens stop with the special teams issues?

It isn’t often that the Ravens’ special teams unit draws the ire of fans criticism but five games into the 2018 season, there are issues to be discussed here.

Week three against the Broncos saw the Ravens give up a blocked punt from their own 13/yard line which set up Denver at the Ravens six for a game-opening touchdown drive.

That same game saw a Justin Tucker 43-yard field goal attempt blocked with the Ravens clinging to a 17-14 lead late in the second quarter. The Broncos took it back for a touchdown to boot, but it was called back for an illegal block which wiped out the potential go-ahead touchdown.

And this past week against the Browns, this happened:

Browns rookie Denzel Ward blocked Tucker’s 48-yard field goal at the end of the first half that would have tied the game at six heading to the halftime break. In a game that ultimately needed an overtime session to determine a winner, this was once again another key mistake from this special teams unit.

The Ravens need to clean this up fast.

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Willie Henry and Terrell Suggs sparked the Ravens defense against the Browns. Will it continue? Image Credit: Getty Images

3) Can the front seven build off of what was a great week?

The Ravens recorded five sacks against the Browns this past Sunday, making good on half of my prediction for the defense this past week (they only recorded one turnover).

Willie Henry returned to the lineup in Cleveland and picked up his first sack of the season while Eric Weddle, Brandon Williams, and Terrell Suggs each picked up a whole sack. Za’Darius Smith and rookie Kenny Young each picked up a half a sack for the defense as well.

It was arguably the most disruptive that the Ravens’ front seven has been this season as they also recorded a season-high 11 tackles for a loss on the day. The Browns and their number two-ranked rushing attack mustered just 112 total rushing yards in roughly five quarters of football.

The Titans offense hasn’t been too impressive this season either. They rank 17th in rushing, 29th in passing and points-per-game, and 24th in third down conversions. The Ravens defense should have the advantage over a Titans unit that has not gone over 20 points in regulation this season.

Predictions:

Jake McDonnell– Ravens 20 Titans 17

Nolan McGraw– Ravens 23 Titans 17

Ian Schultz– Ravens 17 Titans 13

Jay Stavros – Ravens 24 Titans 10

This game could go either way for the Ravens. If the offense responds and has a huge game against Tennessee, I will be happy to eat crow. I think that the Ravens defense will have a big day against a Tennessee offense that hasn’t hit their stride yet this season. Flacco will connect with Crabtree for the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter.

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Image Credit: AP